A.S. Byatt, The Children’s Book

December 23, 2009 § 3 Comments

Once the idea of secret selves had begun to spread little roots in his mind, he began to look at everyone differently, half as a game, half as a dangerous piece of research.  After the morning with Tartarinov he walked with Tom along the road past the woods and onto the Downs, where Toby Youlgreave had his cottage, which, he insisted, had once belonged to a swineherd.  Toby was coaching the boys for the general essays they would have to write.  It was a cold crisp winter day, with frost on the ground and snow in the air.  They wore caps and mufflers and woollen gloves.  Toby gave them mugs of tea, and toasted them crumpets at his inglenook hearth.  The floor of his small sitting-room was populated by uneven pillars of stacked books, on some of which previous mugs of tea had stood, and butter had been smeared.  He had set them an essay on “Dreams” and told them to take that word any way they liked – dreams, nightmares, daydreams, hopes for the future. He had said they would need to find vivid examples of whatever they chose.  He made them read out what they had written, as though they were in a university tutorial.  Tom read well, clearly, without expression, a little too fast.  Charles paced himself, listening to his own argument.  He liked to argue, even about dreams.  Tom had chosen to write about real, night-time dreams, what they felt like, what they meant.  Charles, who knew Tom would do that, had deliberately chosen the moral and political meaning of the word, the dream of justice, the dream of a future life, Utopia.  Tom wrote about the sensation of dreaming, and distinguished between those dreams in which the dreamer is neither actor nor watcher but a kind of looker-on, like the voice of a storyteller in a story.  Almost commenting, but not quite, because all the same you were sort of helpless, you couldn’t make decisions in dreams, but you did know you were in them, and that you would wake to the real world.  Sometimes you tried to stay asleep, to see what would happen.  Then there were the dreams you were really in and had the sensation that you couldn’t get out – dreams of being buried alive, or told you were to be hanged tomorrow (he had that one often) or dreams where you were being pursued, and the beast you thought was behind you turned out to have gone about and around, and was waiting for you at the end of the corridor.  It was odd that the dreams you were completely inside were almost all bad dreams. (pp. 194-195)

Shortlisted for the 2009 Man Booker Prize, one of Great Britain’s most prestigious literary awards, A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book is a sprawling, 675 page historical novel that spans from the last years of the Victorian Age to the immediate aftermath of World War I.  At the center of the novel is the family of children’s novelist Olive Wellwood and how their lives, full of bittersweet romances, flights of fancy, and tragic events, relate to the seven stories that Olive pens about them.  During the quarter-century that the novel spans, The Children’s Book takes an interesting dual-narrative approach that serves to weave a story that is much stronger as a whole than if it were to be considered by its component parts.

The Children’s Book can be read on two levels.  First, there is the complex narrative of the Wellwood children and the adopted runaway Philip.  Byatt does an excellent job fleshing out the characters and their unique traits.  The scene quoted above serves as a microcosm of what transpires between the pragmatic Tom and the idealist Charles (later, Karl).  Byatt breathes life into these characters, so as Tom, Charles, their siblings and Philip grow into adulthood, the reader becomes immersed in what they are experiencing.  From every hope held to every betrayal done, the Wellwood children and Philip live lives that hint at another interpretation of Dream that differs from those given by Tom and Charles.  Some might find Byatt’s treatment of these characters to be overly bleak and dour, but considering the second narrative level from which this novel could be interpreted, I found the sometimes-brutal, heart-wrenching agonies that the children experience to be suitable for the parallels that Byatt created to their times.

In addition to the novel working as a tragic look into the lost innocence of childhood, The Children’s Book works as an excellent historical novel that presents a vivid image of the British Empire just before the calamities of the 20th century.  From the idealistic Fabians to their darker, more violent anarchist brethren, the Great Britain of 1895 to 1913 was a study in contrasts.  Charles/Karl’s flight into the world of the anarchists, his rejection of his comfortable (and somewhat hypocritical) bourgeois upbringing parallels the rise of the Guides in England and the Wandervogel movement among German youth in the two decades before World War I.  Byatt depicts the world of opulent decadence almost pitch-perfectly, as the reader is immersed in a mindscape that correlates almost perfectly with the imagines of a genteel, tamed landscape where the bourgeois dared to dream that eternal prosperity was about to emerge.  Some dreams, when shattered, are damning to those betrayed by them.

The Children’s Book thus can be read as a penetrating look into the psychological tensions between Victorian and Edwardian aspirations and the often-brutal reality that underlay these mad dreams.  Although the book sometimes overindulges in presenting British and German societies of the pre-World War I era, to the point where the Wellwood children and Philip tend to fade into the backdrop too much, on the whole Byatt’s marriage of the wide societal narrative approach with the intimate narrative works well.  If the children and their parents risk becoming little more than metaphors for what was transpiring in Great Britain over the 1895-1919 historical period, by the end, Byatt has mostly succeeded in creating a complex narrative tapestry where the children reflect the times and the times find an echo in the children.

It certainly helps that Byatt has considerable prose talent.  Although some might find the quoted passage to be overlong, I found it to contain not just the germ of what was to transpire later, but also to contain evidence that Byatt could take a little snippet and expand it into something of greater, societal import later, before collapsing it back into the personal.  While there are certainly several places (in particular, the third section as a whole) where Byatt’s approach feels less smooth and polished, on the whole this narrative approach created a moving, evocative story that is very haunting.  The Children’s Book was one of the finest historical novels that I have read this year and it is one of my favorite fictions for 2009.  Highly recommended.

Stephen T. Asma, On Monsters: An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears

December 19, 2009 § 1 Comment

Monster is a flexible, multiuse concept.  Until quite recently it applied to unfortunate souls like the hydrocephalic woman.  During the nineteenth century “freak shows” and “monster spectacles” were common; such exploitation of genetically and developmentally disabled people must be one of the lowest points on the ethical meter of our civilization.  We have moved away from this particular pejorative use of monster, yet we still employ the term and concept to apply to inhuman creatures of every stripe, even if they come from our own species. The concept of the monster has evolved to become a moral term in addition to a biological and theological term.  We live in an age, for example, in which recent memory can recall many sadistic political monsters.  (p. 7)

Things that go bump in the night.  Caterwaulings that chill the hearts and souls of those that hear them.  Asymmetrical oddities that skew the “right” and “normal” perspectives of what constitutes “normal.”  Cold-heart, murderous sons-of-bitches whose thought patterns seem so alien to us.  These and more are frequently labeled as being “monstrous,” but whence comes these fears and revulsions?  Columbia College Chicago Philosophy Professor Stephen T. Asma approaches this often morbidly-fascinating topic from multiple approaches.  Dividing his recently-released On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears into four parts (primal fear, theological, scientific/rationalist, and psychological) that roughly correspond with distinct Western historical periods (prehistory/antiquity, medieval, Age of Reason, 20th century), Asma presents a history of monsters in a well-written, concise fashion that raises almost as many questions as it presumes to address.

On Monsters, published by Oxford University Press, is one of those books that contains a bit of something for most everyone.  For those with a training in academic (especially cultural history, philosophy, and psychology) disciplines, the copious footnotes found in Asma’s book are a treasure trove of information that allows the curious reader to wander further down any rabbit holes that reader might want to explore.  For those readers who want an interesting survey of monsterology, this book also serves as an excellent introduction to this topic.  Asma’s use of personal stories (from his son’s alternating fear/fascination with a mendicant hydrocephalic woman in Shanghai to stories that his brother, a public defender for Cook County, Illinois) helps make this text about the inhuman more personal, easier to relate to, or dare I say it, more “human.”

Asma approaches the issue of monsters and how our concepts of them in various ways. In his first section, he concentrates on “natural” monsters, creatures whose appearance and sounds may spark evolutionary fight-or-flight responses in us.  He opens with the apocryphal letter of Alexander the Great to Aristotle detailing his men’s fight against successive waves of monsters by a lake in India.  He uses this story to highlight how imagination and ingrained fears can magnify or distort natural phenomena into something strange, unnatural, and monstrous. From there, he expands his focus to the religious, concentrating in particular upon the three largest monotheistic faiths today (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and how each contain monsters who attributes are tied into issues of faith, salvation, and damnation.  While he does not present anything particular new in his presentation of these issues, Asma manages to make these arguments clear, concise, and perhaps most importantly, interesting to the reader.

However, there are a few problems in the second half of the book.  In transitioning from the medieval theological mindset to the rationalist approach of (free)thinkers of the 16th-19th centuries, Asma’s narrative begins to falter somewhat.  While the stories involving Barnum’s use of freak shows to draw crowds were very interesting, Asma seemed to be defining this period’s use of “monster” as being something that depends upon oppositional viewpoints (the earlier theological approach, for example) than something that stands strongly by itself.  I wonder if perhaps the rationalist section on monsters might have been better presented as being part of a greater tension between those who wanted to construct a Positivist view of history and their societies’ tendencies to warp such views by presenting the genetically malformed as a sort of twisted take on Darwin’s theory of natural selection.  Asma hints at this in places, but there were times that this appeared to be pushed too much into the background.

The weakest part is perhaps the last, on the psychological view of monsters as being related to the “inhuman” aspects of those who commit chilling crimes that are devoid of passion.  While Asma presents these “monsters” as being much more complex entities than a horrified general public might, there is a pronounced lack of transitional evidence presented in this section on how the label of “monster” moved from the external attributes (appearance, sounds) to the internal (thoughts, rationales, differences from cultural world-views).  This is not to say that the fourth part is devoid of interest (if anything, it contains several stories, including that of Wayne Gacy, that will fascinate readers), but rather that it does not feel as well integrated as the other three parts do.

Yet despite these shortcomings, On Monsters:  An Unnatural History of Our Worst Fears is one of the best non-fiction, scholarly works that I have read in some time.  Asma balances academic research with a personable narrative approach that both informs and entertains the readers.  Several times in the course of this review, a single word was used as a descriptor.  It will suffice here as well as a one-word summation of this book and its main attraction to readers:  Fascinating.

Steampunk: Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário

December 13, 2009 § 10 Comments

Steampunk has exploded in popularity over the past decade.  From anthologies such as 2008’s reprint anthology Steampunk, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer (with a second volume set to be released in the next year) and the original anthology Extraordinary Engines (2008, edited by Nick Gevers) to steampunk-inspired garments, typewriters, computers, and other elements that have made steampunk as much a fashion as a literary subgenre, steampunk is huge.  There is something about the ethos behind the images.  Perhaps inspired by equal parts Jules Verne, H.G.Wells, Thomas Edison, the Age of Imperialism, steam-based transportation, and perhaps a violent reaction to the confusion and horrors of the 20th century, there is something intriguing about the notion of “going retro” and creating a sort of alternative past.

This is not to say that practitioners of steampunk fashion and steampunk literature view the Age of Steam (1775-1914, according to some historians) as a pure, untainted golden age.  If anything, the contradictions inherent in the era’s social and political structures provide a sense of tension, some of which exploded into the devastating wars of the 20th century, where mechanized warfare inspired new horrors on the battlefields of Europe, Africa, and Asia (and to a lesser extent, the Americas and Australia).  It was an age in which Marx and Engels gave a voice and direction to the frustrations of the emerging industrial working classes across the globe; it was a time which the abhorrent practice of chattel slavery gave its death rattles in the United States and Brazil; it was perhaps, as Dickens described 1789-1794 France, both the best and worst of times.

These elements combine to create narrative possibilities that touch upon shared historical and scientific achievements.  In many senses, steampunk is the one of the first truly “international” subgenres of speculative fiction, as its appeal quickly spread from one country to the next, without a single country or language region dominating the literary landscape. In the past twenty years or so, ever since K.W. Jeter’s use of the term “steampunk” in a 1987 letter to Locus to describe this nascent movement, steampunk literary and fashion circles have sprung up in cities all across the globe.  It truly is an international movement, one that adapts to fit the needs of each country’s literary scenes.

This certainly was the case with the release this summer in Brazil of Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário (Steampunk:  Stories of an Extraordinary Past would be a good English translation of the title).  Edited by Gianpaolo Celli and published by the São Paulo publisher Tarja, this original anthology of nine stories written by several of Brazil’s leading SF writers serves to highlight not just Brazilian interpretations of what constitutes “steampunk,” but also that this emerging world power has the potential in the next few decades, as linguistic and trade barriers continue to fall, to play a larger role in the rapidly-growing global SF conversation.

I read each of these stories three times over the past four months, since my reading fluency in Portuguese is less than that of Spanish.  What I discovered with each read is that most of these stories took on additional layers of meaning for me.  There is no single common approach to telling a steampunk story in this collection. Some stories, such as the opening “O Assalto ao Trem Pagador” are a bit more heavy on overt action involving steam-driven trains, boats, and dirigibles than some of the others, but there are certain nuances in the writing that refer more specifically to issues of Brazilian history.  In the footnotes to Romeu Martins’ “Cidade Phantástica,” the author refers to how the character João Fumaça has been utilized by other authors, including an alt-history where Brazil, Argentina, and Uruguay lost the 1864-1970 War of the Triple Alliance against Paraguay.  In Jacques Barcia’s “Uma Vída Possível Atrás dad Barricadas,” Barcia references the long-standing popularity of communists among the proletariat.

These are elements that are often downplayed in much of North American and British steampunk literature.  Yet the 19th century was certainly a time of social unrest, so when reading these stories, I found myself curious to know more about the root causes that the authors referenced in passing.  Fábio Fernandes’ “Uma Breve História da Maquinidade” goes a step further, as he utilizes fictional characters such as Doctor Frankenstein to underscore just how stratified social classes were in the 19th century in Europe and the Americas.  António Luiz M.C. Costa’s “A Flor do Estrume”in many ways was the most mysterious story in this collection.  Referencing the 19th century Brazilian writer Joaquim Maria Machado de Assis,who wrote a fictional memoir of Brás Cubas, his story was the one where I felt lost at times, not because his writing was poor (if anything, the quality of the writing was almost uniformly high in this collection), but because there were references to Brazilian history that I did not know well, if at all.

However, this is not a negative to me, but instead a very positive development.  When I first ordered this anthology back in August, I had some trepidation that the authors would ape the manners and styles of the Anglo-American steampunk writers and not write anything that would be original in form or content.  If anything, the elements that these nine writers (the others being Claudio Villa, Flávio Medeiros, Alexandre Lancaster, and Roberto de Sousa Causo) use are more appealing to me than what I have found in the majority of the English-language steampunk fiction of the past decade.  There is a darker undercurrent in this anthology, a sense that underneath the trappings of a steam age “golden age” that there is much wrong with the local and global societies.  A frustration that technological advancement and the rise of a leisure class is not improving the lot of the social classes as much as it should.  There is a dark cloud in several of these stories, a cloud which threatens to burst asunder, bringing destruction and ruinous change in its wake.

This is not to say that these stories are didactic fictions devoid of adventure and fun.  Most of these tales were very enjoyable to read and the undercurrents noted above never threatened to overwhelm the stories being told.  Although there were a couple of stories that didn’t work as well for me as did the others, Steampunk:  Histórias de um Passado Extraordinário is one of the most taut and enjoyable anthologies that I have read in 2009 in any language.  Hopefully, in the coming decade, the writers that appear in this collection will see more of their stories translated into various languages (from what I recall, several already have appeared in English and Romanian translations at least). There appears to be a growing, if still somewhat small, SF culture developing in Brazil.  I suspect with time, that several of these writers will craft new narratives of Brazil that will challenge not just current Anglo-centric conceptions of that emerging power, but which will influence global conversations on steampunk and SF fiction. 

Highly recommended for those who can read Portuguese (no known English or other foreign language translations are in the works at this time).  Will be featured in a couple of weeks in my Best of 2009 posts.

Umberto Eco, The Vertigo of Lists

December 2, 2009 § 4 Comments

Animals are divided into: (a) belonging to the Emperor, (b) embalmed, (c) tame, (d) sucking pigs, (e) sirens, (f) fabulous, (g) stray dogs, (h) included in the present classification, (i) frenzied, (j) innumerable, (k) drawn with a very fine camelhair brush, (1) et cetera, (m) having just broken the water pitcher, (n) that from a long way off” look like flies.

 Lists are fun.  Whether it be goals to do, things to buy, people to meet, enemies to beat, list making is a near-universal activity among humans.  From how we order our affairs to how certain religions rank their divine masters, lists also serve as a visual representation of hierarchical arrangements.  We just cannot seem to escape this seeming need to classify and to arrange objects, ideas, and people along various schema.

Umberto Eco’s latest non-fiction quasi-coffee table book, The Vertigo of Lists (available in the US as The Infinity of Lists), is a continuation of his explorations begun in History of Beauty and On Ugliness.  It is in equal parts a celebration of the near-boundless human imagination and a critical look at how we classify and arrange information and how those classifications have shifted and changed with the tides of time.  As with the earlier two volumes, The Vertigo of Lists contains several dozen illustrations, literary passages, sculptures, and other material artifacts that serve as visual representations of Western culture and its values over the past five millennia.

Eco organizes this book in a loose chronological order, starting with Achilles’ shield and ending up in the realm of Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Can illustrations.  In-between, he explores notions of how the Sublime was configured in art and literature, how medieval philosophers categorized the world, from the species to the human tongues spoken in all imagined corners of the world.  While this book perhaps would have been even stronger if there would have been more (or frankly, any) coverage of African, east Asian, and Amerindian concepts of order and time, for the most part Eco’s essays complement the gorgeous artwork and moving literary passages.  Eco is very erudite and in his essays on the various aspects and uses of lists over time/space, he demonstrates a depth and clarity of thought that is vital if books such as this will be valued for more than their reproductions of artwork.

A real strength in this book is the notion that underneath the organization of lists (including Eco’s own, in the form of this book) is that several questions are hinted at in Eco’s discourse.  Why have lists?  What value do we derive from list making?  What do our lists say about us? (I’m finding myself wondering how Eco could have worked in Rolling Stone‘s annual Hot List into his essays.)

While doubtless several will find this book worth its weight in gold just for the illustrations and passages cited, I believe Eco’s essays will serve to provoke quite a few questions among those readers who dare to ask themselves why things are organized in the way they are?  Why not classify animals like the Chinese did in that passage that Borges quoted and Michel Foucault lifted for his own book on classifications, The Order of Things?  Why do we have five “kingdoms” of life, from Bacteria to Protozoa to Fungi to Plants to Animals?  Why not organize it based on those organisms that are free to move and those who are relatively constrained to a single place?  While these sorts of questions are not directly raised in Eco’s essays, he certainly leaves the reader free to consider the implications of the questions that he does raise there.  For this alone, The Vertigo of Lists is a valuable book.  The plenitude of inspiring artwork is just an added bonus. 

Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura, I Kill Giants

November 14, 2009 § 2 Comments

Ever read one of those stories, the ones that you know you can never explain fully to another, but that you just want for them to read it and feel it?  The type that is like a punch to the junk, but which also makes you want to reach out to the other poor crazies in this world and just give them a hug, just because…?

That is what I’m feeling now after reading Joe Kelly and JM Ken Nimura’s I Kill Giants.  I thought of my childhood and early adulthood, dealing with three certain situations similar to the one that the main character, Barbara, confronts, sometimes with no success.  I also find myself thinking of those hundreds I’ve been around over the past 10 years who’ve been hurt, desperate in their attempts to cry out to others.  One of the support characters in this graphic novel reminds me of just how easy it is to feel futility when trying to help others.

The ending is just about perfect.  It is one that will stick with me for a long time and damn if I don’t want to cry in shared understanding after reading it.  If that isn’t the sign of a story touching emotional strings within its readers, I don’t know what story could ever aspire to do so.  Just go out and read it, okay?  It certainly is one of the best 2009 graphic novels (or any type of fiction) that I’ve read this year.  And perhaps you’ll find yourself thinking differently of those suffering people who have withdrawn from it all. 

Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson, The Gathering Storm

October 26, 2009 § 12 Comments

The Wheel of Time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend.  Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again.  In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose around the alabaster spire known as the White Tower.  The wind was not the beginning.  There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time.  But it was a beginning.

The wind twisted around the magnificent Tower, brushing perfectly fitted stones and flapping majestic banners.  The structure was somehow both graceful and powerful at the same time; a metaphor, perhaps, for those who had inhabited it for over three thousand years.  Few looking upon the Tower would guess that at its heart, it had been both broken and corrupted.  Separately.  (p. 49)

Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series has been one of the most sprawling, character-intensive epic fantasies of the past twenty years.  Spanning millions of words, this series, now reaching its twelfth volume out of a planned fourteen, has spawned dozens of fansites over the years, as well as engendering heated debates over matters ranging from how well (or not) the author managed to portray female characters to questions of character identities and motivations to even a fictional murder-mystery that still remains unresolved seven volumes after its occurrence.  Some view passages, such as the (in)famous “wind passage” that opens the first chapter of each book, as being hallmarks of a great talent.  Others read the same lines and wonder how the story ever managed to become even more turgid and bloated than the previous volume. 

Debates such as these point to some intrinsic quality of the series that barely allows for there to be a middle ground.  There is something for almost everyone, depending if one likes an action/adventure tale, political intrigue, social commentary, or even elements of a puzzle novel.  Sometimes, there is too much of it all, and readers who enjoyed the earlier volumes might end up finding the past few volumes to be rather plodding, tedious affairs.  After reading the eighth and ninth volumes, The Path of Daggers and Winter’s Heart, I found myself going years before even thinking of picking up the tenth volume, Crossroads of Twilight, which was perhaps the most difficult book to complete reading of them all at the time.

But then a tragic event happened.  Jim Rigney, the person behind the Robert Jordan pseudonym, contracted a rare blood disorder, amyloidosis.  Rigney spent the final eighteen months of his life battling the disease, while attempting to complete the conclusion to the series.  Sadly, he succumbed to the disease on September 16, 2007.  Fans were devastated, as for nearly three months, the matter of who would complete the series, or even if the series would be completed, was up in the air.  Toward the end of the year, Rigney’s wife, Harriet McDougal, announced that she had chosen young author Brandon Sanderson, whose work to date had been three adult fantasies (Elantris and the first two Mistborn novels) and two young adult novels.  From the end of 2007 to now, Wheel of Time fans have been probing for information, trying to decide if Sanderson was the “right” choice, if he would manage to capture Jordan’s narrative “voice,” warts and all, and if the conclusion (now announced to comprise of three volumes spread out over three years) would be worthy of the time invested in the series.

Depending on what you enjoy most about the series, Sanderson largely succeeds in this thankless task.  For those wanting to know if Sanderson would manage to capture the essence of the late Jordan’s writing style or if his passages would integrate well with the ones Jordan had completed before his death, it will be difficult for most of the time to discern which author wrote which passage.  Sanderson’s interpretations of the two main characters of this story, Rand al’Thor, the Dragon Reborn, and Egwene al’Vere, the rebel Amyrlin, are almost pitch-perfect.  What I found interesting about Sanderson’s treatment of the characters is just how well they are integrated with Jordan’s earlier development of them.

Rand in particular has a very good character development arc in The Gathering Storm.  Hurting from his myriad mental, emotional, and physical wounds, he is a near-complete wreck.  Increasingly paranoid and worried that he is not “hard enough” to face the Dark One in the prophesied Last Battle, Rand’s character displays many traits in common with soldiers suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder during the Vietnam War.  This is no accident, as before his death, Rigney discussed how he himself faced a decision in Vietnam if he was to desensitize himself to the horrors happening around him or if he would fight to keep from becoming a sociopathic killer.  Rand’s development from the first chapter, “Tears from Steel,” to the last, “Just Another Man,” is one of the more intriguing in the entire series.  It is perhaps for me the most personal of all the mini-plots in this mammoth series and the authors do such a good job of showing Rand’s descent into darkness, both figurative and literal, as well as setting up the decision he makes at the end of this book that is in many ways as important thematically as the cleansing of saidin was in Winter’s Heart.

Paralleling Rand’s development and his struggles to integrate his past and present memories is that of his childhood sweetheart, Egwene.  Captured at the end of Crossroads of Twilight and forced to undergo numerous punishments at the hand of her rival for the head of the Aes Sedai organization, Elaida, Egwene presents a clear contrast to Rand’s choices early in the novel.  Instead of trying to harden herself by means of shutting out friends and even one’s own emotions, Egwene comes to accept her situation, viewing matters such as hurt and grief not as something to avoid or to manipulate, but rather as things to accept and to use to improve one’s self.  This change from the rather ambitious, self-righteous girl of the earlier volumes into a leader who realizes the importance behind the very name of “Aes Sedai,” stands in sharp opposition to that of Elaida, as the authors go to great lengths to make clear in the second chapter, “The Nature of Pain.”

There are even more parallels between the characters along the lines of examining the choices people make in regards to themselves and others.  It is debatable whether or not Jordan would have been quite as direct as the final draft came to be, but several times over the course of the novel, characters ranging from the two mentioned above, Perrin, Mat, and members of the Black Ajah and the Forsaken are shown via the choices they have made.  The selflessness of one clashes with the self-centered greed of another.  The desire to be viewed as being important contrasts with one who humbles herself, placing her own soul in risk of eternal perdition so the machinations of others can be revealed to others.  These parallels, which were either lacking or were not adroitly done in the past several volumes, helped make The Gathering Storm one of the better WoT volumes I have read in the past twelve years.

Despite this, there were several problems that I had with the text.  Although Sanderson eschewed the character “blocks” that Jordan used in the past few volumes, there were times that the pacing of the plot still suffered.  While Rand and Egwene’s subplots were developed well and each concluded within narrative minutes of one another, Perrin and Mat’s were underdeveloped and appear to be days or even weeks behind the first two.  In addition, their characters were not as well developed as were Rand’s and Egwene’s.  Perhaps this is in part due to the limited number of chapters each appears, but Mat’s chapters, despite a near-horrific chapter occurring in a backwoods town near the kingdom of Andor, felt rather sketchy, as if Sanderson had not decided what to do with the character in the allotted space.  Perrin’s arc was rather anti-climatic and it is hard to guess where he will be heading in the next volume.  Despite the near-certain protests from fans of those characters, The Gathering Storm might have been better served if those arcs had been withheld until the next volume, even though that alternative certainly would have risked backlash from those burned by the eighth and tenth volumes of the series.

The pacing was mostly good, although there were times that events long foretold in the series unfolded so quickly that there was a sense of a letdown.  But perhaps reader expectations had been built up too much from the narrative molehills, so it is hard to say particularly which events (ranging from what occurred outside a castle in Arad Doman to the use of a certain item discovered in The Shadow Rising) were done too hastily and which events were done purposely at such a breakneck pace in order to set up future character development.  For myself, the two events I allude to above served to develop Rand’s character in ways that were at once surprising and logical in hindsight (especially as it relates to how he parallels Moridin more and more now in thought and action).  But others might view these scenes differently, wishing that Sanderson had spent more time setting up the events so that there would be a stronger emotional reaction.  There is something to be said for this argument, but I suspect if there had been further development of these two set scenes, the pace of the narrative would have slowed to the near-glacial creep of the previous novels.

Prose is something I value highly in a novel.  The previous eleven volumes of the WoT series were uneven to me, as powerful scenes would be offset by descriptions of clothing, of how to wash silk, and even lengthy scenes set in a bathtub.  Sanderson’s prose in his novels tends to be rather too sparse at times, attempting to be too “invisible” when the occasional use of more florid language might serve to vary the prose enough to make it more interesting.  Thankfully, for most of The Gathering Storm, Sanderson managed to achieve a happy medium between his own preferred style and that employed by Jordan.  There are places where the narrative still feels clunky or choppy, but these are fewer than what I recall being present in Sanderson’s own work.  The too-long descriptions of places and dress still occur on occasion, but thankfully they are reduced.  The male characters’ self-conscious thoughts about their abilities with women is also much reduced, doubtless to the delight of numerous readers.  While certainly not written in a style that would lend itself to being studied by writing students, the prose here was at least acceptable and at several times, very well-written.

The Gathering Storm certainly is not an ideal beginning place for readers curious about the Wheel of Time universe, but for those who were disenchanted by the perceived lack of plot and character development over the past few volumes, it certainly is one of the faster-paced, better-written volumes.  While I would not consider it to be among the best works released in 2009, it certainly is one of the best epic fantasies that I have read.  The Wheel continues to turn and thankfully it appears to be cranking a bit faster and toward a more intriguing conclusion than I had suspected when I had suspended my reading of the series back in 2000. Highly recommended for WoT fans and recommended for those who might have become disillusioned by the previous four volumes.

Jeff VanderMeer, Finch

October 20, 2009 § 6 Comments

Wyte stopped walking, faced him.  Finch had his back to a crumbling wall veined through with fungus so blue it looked black.  An overlay of scattered bullet holes.  Across the street, a laughing pack of Partials shoved a couple of prisoners ahead of them.  A middle-aged bearded man with a bandage across his forehead and angry rips in a shirt discolored pink.  A woman who could have been the man’s wife, her long black hair being used as a leash by one of the Partials.  Just a jaunt around the block before getting down to business. (p. 85)

History, or rather its root of “story,” can be a cruel, deceitful monster.  People inspired by one telling of the past may go forth and butcher their neighbors, just because of stories that may not ultimately be “true.”  Memories can be haunting by themselves, but when infused with stories from the past that are tinged to place might and right on one’s side, who can fathom the depths to which one may be self-deluded or, ultimately, betrayed?  What may seem insignificant in the present may have antecedents that were considered to be momentous, or perhaps the mundane present can give birth to unimaginable futures.  History’s treacheries may inspire or crush societies, but no society ever truly remains static or totally free of being enslavement to (false?) memories of the past.

In Jeff VanderMeer’s Ambergris Cycle, the various false faces that history and memory can wear are interwoven into the fabric of these tales.  From the myths surrounding the razing of the gray cap city of Cinsorium to the fates of Samuel Tonsure, Voss Bender, and Duncan Shriek, there are layers upon layers of shaded meaning.  What is happening between the lines?  Which writers, if any, manage to follow that old deceiving adage of historians, wie es eigentlich gewesen?  In my recent re-reading of VanderMeer’s first two Ambergris books, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek:  An Afterword, I found myself referring back to this adage of Ranke’s.  How can one even hope to believe that “how it actually has been” can be found in narratives like that of Janice and Duncan Shriek?  Who is “lying,” and who merely is self-deceived?

In the concluding book to the Ambergris Cycle, Finch, the issues surrounding the relationships between past and present are brought to the fore in VanderMeer’s apparently most straightforward narrative yet.  Set around 100 years after the events in Shriek:  An Afterword, Finch is on the surface a noir-like murder mystery.  Ambergris, after decades of internecine warfare between two leading trading companies, fell under the control of the gray caps in the Rising six years before the present story.  The city, always in a fragile state, has become a brutal occupation zone.  Passages such as the one quoted above pepper the narrative.  Humans are herded into quasi-concentration camps or they are subdued by the gray caps by means of hallucinogenic mushrooms that provide euphoria and substance to the addicts.  Bands of altered human quislings, called Partials, spy on the population, trying to stamp out the last vestiges of revolutionary activity inspired by the enigmatic Lady in Blue.  Ambergris is rotting on both the inside and out, or perhaps being on the verge of a transformation may be a more apt description.

In this chaos, just as the gray caps are nearing the end of a momentous building project, two bodies (one human, the other half of a gray cap) suddenly appear, dead.  The gray caps coerce the human detective, John Finch, to investigate.  Over the course of several days, Finch follows leads provided through the gray cap’s strange abilities to draw memories from the dead bodies, but ultimately each clue leads Finch further down into a rabbit hole in which reader assumptions about Finch, Ambergris, and even the stories told about various characters’ pasts are challenged. 

Finch is written in the style of a hard-hitting noir mystery.  Finch speaks in clipped sentences, often fragmented.  He is introspective, but not overly so.  He has a deadly mystery to solve, while all the while trying to stay alive while some truly horrific events happen.  Since much of the impact of the story comes from its excellent use of the mystery model, nothing much will be said about the plot.  Instead, as already noted above, it is the thematic elements of Finch that make this perhaps VanderMeer’s best novel in one of my favorite fiction series. 

Readers who are new to the Ambergris setting certainly can read Finch first.  After all, it is akin to reading a historical novel about the 16th century Tudors before reading a story about the split of the Plantagenet ruling family near the end of the 14th century.  Sure, the prior events, as detailed in City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek:  An Afterword will provide extra context (and contextual mysteries) for the reader.  However, a major strength of Finch is that the “present-day” story is so strong that prior knowledge of the Ambergris setting is not necessary. 

As with any hard-hitting mystery novel, there are several twists and turns, several of them surprising at the onset but logical when considered in relation to the story as a whole.  Finch as a character changes dynamically, at least how the reader interprets him.  What was fascinating to me was how VanderMeer manages to show this to the reader, while still having Finch attempt to deny this for most of the novel.  This narrative tension between what the reader “knows” and what the protagonist refuses to admit to himself made for an intriguing read for me.  Add to that the parallels between occupied Ambergris and what is transpiring in the world today and the story takes on several layers of meaning, many of which I am certain that I am not detailing here.

The narrative, as noted above, is crisp and fast-paced.  VanderMeer does not embellish much here, an interesting contrast to the styles he chose for the previous two Ambergris books.  If anything, there are times that it feels too fast, as though I were missing something even after a re-read.  This feeling was strongest toward the final scene, when so much is happening that it was hard to keep track of everything.  But I suspect that might have been the point of it – to show that there are certain events whose significance may be beyond our ken.

Finch is certainly one of the best novels that I have read this year.  Despite the minor quibbles that I noted above, there is so much that VanderMeer did “right” in terms of balancing narrative, characterization, and themes that I have found myself thinking about some of the issues related to this novel (and to the series as a whole – see the recent interview I conducted with VanderMeer)  for several days now.  Finch is a novel that I believe would appeal to a wide range of readers, from mystery fans to lovers of surreal fiction to those readers who want to “think” and “feel” simultaneously.  It’s just a damn good book and I suspect future re-readings will only strengthen my appreciation for what VanderMeer managed to accomplish in this novel.  Most highly recommended.

Publication Date:  November 3, 2009 (US; some copies shipping currently from Amazon).  Tradeback.  UK edition forthcoming from Atlantic’s Corvus imprint.

Publisher:  Underland Press 

Disclaimer:  I was sent a PDF of this book by the author back in April 2009.  However, this has had no real impact on my take on the series, as I’ve been a fan of VanderMeer’s writing for over five years now.

Eoin Colfer, And Another Thing…

October 12, 2009 § 3 Comments

According to a janitor’s assistant at the Maximegalon University, who often loiters outside lecture halls, the universe is over sixteen billion years old.  The supposed truth is scoffed at by a clutch of Betelgeusean beat poets who claim to have moleskin pads older than that (rat a tat-tat).  Seventeen billion, they say, at the very least according to their copy of the Wham Bam Big Bang scrolls.  A human teenage prodigy once called it at fourteen billion based on a complicated computation involving the density of moon rock and the distance between two pubescent females on an event horizon.  One of the minor Asgardian gods did mumble that he’s read something somewhere about some sort of a major-ish cosmic event eighteen billion years ago, but no-one pays much attention to pronouncements from on-high anymore, not since the birth of the gods debacle, or Thorgate as it has come to be known. (p. 6)

Completing a story that another author began is often a very controversial affair.  When the estate of Margaret Mitchell contracted with Alexandra Ripley to write the sequel to Gone with the Wind, called Scarlett, several fans of Mitchell’s book said that they frankly didn’t give a damn about the sequel.  Frank Herbert’s son, Brian, and Kevin Anderson wrote a series of prequels, sequels, and some-other-sort-of-quels set in the Dune universe that many fans of Frank Herbert’s were left wondering just how fast he was spinning in his grave.  Even the choice of Brandon Sanderson to finish The Wheel of Time series after Robert Jordan’s death from amyloidosis has proven to be the source of some debate, despite the author’s widow choosing Sanderson as a replacement and despite the copious amounts of notes left behind.

So it should be no surprise that fans of Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series bemoaned the decision by his widow and daughter to have Irish author Eoin Colfer (author of the bestselling Artemis Fowl series) to write the sixth volume in the trilogy.  If one listened closely enough, doubtless the awful galactic profanity of B**gium! might have been heard from those fans, especially when they learned that Adams had left no notes behind on the sixth volume.  It is understandable the frustration of these fans.  It is very difficult for a replacement author to come close, much less match or exceed, the original author’s grasp of the characters, the prose, and the settings.  It is doubly difficult when the original author in question has inspired all sorts of catchphrases, from 42 to frood to Towel Day.  But if a reader can accept that the replacement author is offering an interpretation (one that may inevitably lose something in the “translation”) of the original’s vision and if they are willing to judge that work on the basis of how much it entertains and stimulates the reader’s imagination, then perhaps the resulting work ends up being something more than a commercial exercise.

Having spent much more time than usual on prologue, it is hard to examine And Another Thing… without noting what it isn’t.  It is not a story that revolves around the answer of 42.  Towels are not a prominent part of the story.  There is not as much of a dark, almost nihilistic slant to this story, as what many found in the fifth volume, Mostly HarmlessAnd Another Thing… does not derive its title from the original book in the series.  But despite these “isn’t”s, it offers quite a bit in return.

The humor and wordplay, while not pitch-perfect, are enough to grab one’s attention in places.  The characterizations are fairly spot-on, as Arthur Dent acted like Arthur Dent, Ford Prefect postured like Ford Prefect, and Random was just herself, irritating as it might have been at times.  However, there were some differences.  Arthur was more in the background in this series and Trillian was featured even less.  Zaphod was similar in many regards, but with a more “serious” side to his character.  There were new characters introduced and one returning, from the Asgardians to Wowbagger, who was quite obnoxious and whose conflict with a certain character provided a highlight to the series.  In many ways, the main strength of And Another Thing… revolves around these character interactions and conflicts.  Humor alone didn’t drive Adams’ series, as there were several scenes that revolved around some weighty issues.  For the most part, the same holds true for And Another Thing…, especially in regards to the Random/Arthur scenes and how Arthur struggles to deal with the opinionated daughter that he barely knew.

Plot was usually a secondary consideration in the digression-laden Hitchhiker’s Guide series, which is why it appears last here.  There is a semblance of a plot, namely that the Vogons, ever eager to complete their contracted deal to wipe out all remnants of Earth and Earthlings remaining in the plural zones, are out to demolish the last remnants of human life living on another planet.  While there are several places where this main plot steps aside so the author can concentrate on the sidequests and digressive dialogues, And Another Thing… perhaps might be the most plot-centric novel in the six-volume trilogy, relatively speaking, of course.

So is And Another Thing… worth it?  For myself, who found the final two volumes in the original series to be rather depressing, muted affairs, I would have to say yes, as And Another Thing… managed to capture most of the good elements about the series (especially the wordplay) without repeating the more obvious catchphrases or (for the last two volumes) being as morose as Adams appeared to have become by then.  It is not a perfect novel, in that there are times that it feels as though too much is happening at once, but for the most part it was an enjoyable, witty novel that felt as though its author aimed to do much more than just cash a big check from writing in another author’s setting.

Disclaimer:  The reason why this review of the entire book appears so early is because I signed a NDA with the publisher that prohibited me from posting it earlier than Monday, October 12, 2009, the date of release.  However, my opinions are mine and no one else’s, lest the few finding this via search and not knowing me might decide to question this review.

David Anthony Durham, The Other Lands

September 20, 2009 § 3 Comments

In the offices that had once been her father’s, Queen Corinn Akaran bent over her desk, arms spread wide and palms pressed against the smooth grain of the polished hardwood. The flared sleeves of her gown formed an enclosure of sorts, a screen that shielded the document from view on two sides. She was alone in her offices, but she knew – better than anyone else in the palace – that until she had eyes in the back of her head she could not trust that she was ever as unaccompanied as she believed herself to be. She favored this posture when she wished to focus her attention on a particular document, above which she would hang like a falcon poised to drop on a field mouse far below.


If all the scheming complexity of her position had etched fine wrinkles at the corners of her eyes, so be it. If she was fuller in the hips and chest than she had been before childbirth, what did that matter? If she walked more on her heels and less on the eager balls of her feet, that was as it should be. She had been lovely as a girl, but she knew that there were other ways to be lovely as a woman. She was not yet the age her mother was in her memories, which meant she had not reached the age to measure herself against her understanding of beauty. And of mortality. That day would come, she knew, but not just yet. (pp. 29-30)

Reviewing middle volumes of a multi-volume work is very tricky. There really isn’t a true “beginning” to the novel and there certainly will be no real conclusion as well. To evaluate a middle volume such as David Anthony Durham’s second novel in his Acacia trilogy, The Other Lands (September 2009), perhaps it might be best to look at how it builds upon developments begun in The War with the Mein and to see how the two books complement each other, rather than trying to weigh The Other Lands‘ merits in a vacuum.

Character development is a good place to begin this evaluation. In my review of The War with the Mein (2007), I cited a passage where the young Princess Corinn is mourning the impending loss of her mother to a deadly illness. There, she was conflicted, noting the similarities between her and her mother, while also worrying about the ravages of mortality. Compare that with the passage I quoted at the top. Corinn, now almost twenty years older, is more confident, but yet there is still that nagging insecurity that is represented in the form of her comparisons of herself with memories of her mother. In many ways, these two short passages from the two novels give valuable insight into one of the more complex and interesting characters of this series.

The other characters also benefit from increased time delving into their character developments over the nine-year span between the events of The War with the Mein and The Other Lands. Corinn’s younger sister, Mena, and brother, Dariel, each are much fuller, dynamic characters than they were in the first novel. Each has conflicts arising from their actions nine years before. Mena is torn between her gentle nature and her capability to be fierce, as the avatar of the wrath goddess Maeben. Dariel suffers constantly from his order that his brother Alavar’s killer be surrounded and slaughtered after a duel between the Meinish and Acacian army leaders ends with Alavar’s death. Mena and Dariel’s story arcs not only highlight these tensions within them, but they are reflected on a grander scale in the plot dynamics of the novel.

The Known Lands, or the continent that the Acacian Empire mostly controls, is still reeling from the events of the past 18 years. Corinn is a shrewd ruler, but the people are beginning to grumble, especially since she has doubled the Quota of children sent via the League to the mysterious Lothun Aklan and the Auldek magicians east across the Grey Slopes. More and more supplies of the drug Mist are distributed to quell the unrest, but still things continue to boil over in the Known Lands, as each natural (and unnatural) setback is blamed upon the young queen. And while Corinn occupies herself with the magic book she discovered at the end of the first novel, it appears the threat from the East is only looming larger.

If one compares the plots and thematic developments of the two novels, a certain mirroring can be discerned. Alavar’s more idealistic, egalitarian view of governance is mirrored in his sister Corinn’s pragmatic rule that continues to reinforce the inequalities that the minor, “salt of the earth” characters of the two novels note in their brief PoV chapters. The combination of power lust and ancestor reverence that the Mein displayed in the first novel finds certain parallels with the Auldek of the Other Lands. But what dominates large portions of The Other Lands, whether the action be set in Acacia, in the wilds with Mena, or (later) in the Other Lands with Dariel, is the desire for change. The old systems, whether they be magical (Santoth, Lothun Aklan), commercial (the League, Quota), military (Numrek, various Acacian dependencis), or social (Auldek, the people in the Known Lands subjugated to the Quota), are all on the verge of collapse. The chains of inhumane inequality are being rattled and it appears each link is much more brittle than suspected.

This exploration of the desire for equality and freedom, referenced several times by the royal survivors in the form of Alavar’s apparently stillborn movement (and then explicitly in a surprising scene at the end of the novel) is one of two themes that I believe Durham develops well here. He avoids becoming “preachy,” in that there are several facets presented and the reader is never allowed to see any side (except perhaps for one revealed in the second part of the novel) as being all or even mostly “in the right.” Yet Durham also manages to avoid the trap of relying too much upon relativism. While no side is pure white and light, one group certainly is darker and less good than the other. Which side that is, however, depends on how one interprets events.

The second great theme of The Other Lands concerns itself with the interconnections of events and actions. Everything in this novel and its predecessor has consequences, some of them dire and often unexpected. Demonstrated first with the corrupted magic of the Santoth and then later with the consequences of the Quota, the novel’s plot is full of examples of how events are connected in ways that might surprise the reader if that reader has not paid close attention to the seemingly minor details of what Mist is, how the League and the Lothun Aklan conducted their trade, why magic practice fell out of use in the Known Lands almost 20 generations ago, and so forth.

The writing here is of a similar quality to the first novel. Some readers may become impatient with Durham’s descriptive prose, but I found it (as I did with the first novel) to convey the important elements of the narrative quickly, with just enough attention to detail to spark interest, but without the turgidity that sometimes can set in when authors reach almost pornographic levels of detail about what a character is thinking or what people are wearing or eating at feasts. Sometimes, withheld detail and a more “pan out” scene setting serves to create a better narrative perspective than too much of a focus on the “showing” aspects of a narrative. Durham balances the dialogue and the narrative “telling” quite adroitly here and the story flowed at a nice, even pace throughout the novel.

On the whole, there are no resolutions to be found in The Other Lands, only more questions raised. But what else would a reader expect from a middle volume? The plot was advanced in interesting directions, the characters developed nicely, and there are hints of some interesting events on the horizon. All in all, The Other Lands complements and reinforces the qualities of The War with the Mein and it leaves me eager to read the concluding volume. This certainly was one of the better epic fantasy volumes that I’ve read this year. Highly recommended.

Paolo Bacigalupi, The Windup Girl

September 18, 2009 § Leave a comment

Overhead, the towers of Bangkok’s old Expansion loom, robed in vines and mold, windows long ago blown out, great bones picked clean. Without air conditioning or elevators to make them habitable, they stand and blister in the sun. The black smoke of illegal dung fires wafts from their pores, marking where Malayan refugees hurriedly scaled chapatis and boil kopi before the white shirts can storm the sweltering heights and beat them for their infringements.

In the center of the traffic lanes, northern refugees from the coal war prostrate themselves with hands upstretched, exquisitely polite in postures of need. Cycles and rickshaws and megodont wagons flow past them, parting like a river around boulders. The cauliflower growths of fa’gan fringe scar the beggars’ noses and mouths. Betel nut stains blacken their teeth. Anderson reaches into his pocket and tosses cash at their feet, nodding slightly at their wais of thanks as he glides past. (p. 7)

Paolo Bacigalupi has established himself as a first-class short fiction writer. Stories such as “Pump Six,” “The Calorie Man,” and “Yellow Card Man” have been nominated (and in the case of the former story, a Locus Award winner) for the Locus and Hugo Awards. The Windup Girl is Bacigalupi’s first novel and it is set in the same ecologically-devastated setting as “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” But regardless of how talented short fiction writers might be in creating quick-developing, hard-hitting short stories, many times there is an adjustment to writing longer fiction. In Bacigalupi’s case, there were times that it was painfully apparent that the fabric of this story felt stretched thin in places.

The story is set in late 22nd century Bangkok. The age of cheap energy has passed. Political entities such as the United States have collapsed, leaving behind huge agribusinesses who compete to control the current currency of “calories,” which are a combination of energy units for maintaining life and a form of storage unit for future use. Genetically modified animals like the megodonts (huge versions of elephants) represent part of an interbusiness (since it seems political bodies have been mostly subsumed into competing business entities) “war” where all sorts of genetically-modified crops have been developed to remain a tiny step above the GM pests and plagues unleashed by a business’s competitors in order to establish a precarious balance of power. It is a frightful world, one that Bacigalupi develops continually in this novel.

However well-realized the setting might be, the Achilles Heel of The Windup Girl is in its characterizations and plot development. As interesting as the scarcity world setting is, ultimately reader perceptions of how strong this story will rest upon how convincingly Bacigalupi develops his characters and how well-constructed the story itself was. For myself, Bacigalupi failed to develop either adequately.

There are three main PoVs in The Windup Girl, split between the “calorie man” Anderson, a representative of one of the main agribusiness interests in Bangkok; Hock Seng, a Chinese refugee-turned-“yellow card,” or black market dealer in energy supplies; and Emiko, the titular “windup girl,” or GM sentient being constructed mostly from human genetic material, supplemented with canine genes to ensure docility and obedience despite the “New People”‘s inherently superior resistance to disease and an apparently greater intelligence in comparison to regular people.

When each of these characters were introduced, I had hopes that this would be an in-depth, insightful look into how humans might deal with issues of competition and differing definitions of what would constitute being “human.” However, Bacigalupi spent so much time on developing his overall setting that at times it felt as though the characters were relegated more to being passive observers of this imagined nightmarish world than being active, multi-dimensional actors. This was most evident with the characters of Anderson and Hock Seng, as at times these characters seemed to be more akin to ciphers than being dynamic characters. But with Emiko, her character development was more troubling.

Emiko was trained to be a secretary in Japan before she was abandoned by her former master in Thailand, where the “windups”/”New People” are illegal. Emiko’s genetic predeposition to obedience, combined with the herky-jerky motions endemic to the windups (in order to help people to readily identify them from the rest of sentient society) and a pheromone release that makes her irresistible to human males has led to her being forced into a submissive, degrading role of a prostitute. Bacigalupi does not skimp on the sordid details of Emiko’s humilating treatment, from having beer poured over her on a strip club floor to having cold objects rammed up her ass while she has to perform cunnilingus on a human female. While he attempts to develop a strong dichotomy between this treatment and Emiko’s reactions, too often he fails to get to the heart of the matter, leaving me frustrated in the process.

The plot was rather thin as well. While the three characters do interact to some extent, there rarely is a sense of real import to their interactions by the time the story nears its presumed climax. It appeared as though Bacigalupi was so focused on developing the setting that he failed to put in the necessary attention to plot detail to make the characters’ stories more interesting than their environs. This was exacerbated with the concluding chapter, which failed to provide any sense of real discovery and which seemed to serve more as an opener to a possible sequel than it did to reinforce and to develop events from earlier in the book. As a result, the overall story felt stretched, very weak and underdeveloped for several of the presumed key events in the novel.

The Windup Girl read more like a good novella idea that was stretched too far in an attempt to make a true novel. Perhaps the story would have worked better if one of the two male character PoVs had been dropped or at least reduced. Perhaps it would have been stronger if the author had spent more time developing ways of showing why the characters’ stories were worth telling. Perhaps it would have had more to grab readers if the plot was developed further and if there had been a strong ending rather than the anti-climatic one provided. Perhaps…but that word is just so damning. As it stands, The Windup Girl is a novel that held some promise, but ultimately it failed to provide much in the way of entertainment for this reader. Hopefully, Bacigalupi’s next novel will shore up the perceived weaknesses of this one, as I think he was close to writing a finely-crafted, exciting novel, rather than the mess that The Windup Girl was at times.

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