Recent Book Reviews
A bold adventure into realms unknown
This Savage Song and Our Dark Duet by Victoria Schwab is a dark future dystopian urban fantasy described by the author as “Sin City PLUS Romeo and Juliet MINUS romance PLUS monsters.” Together they make up the Monsters of Verity duology.
Kate Harker is the daughter of the crime lord in control of the northern portion of Verity and August Flynn is the son of the man holding the south against him. What begins as a standard teen trope of boy meets girl at school quickly escalates and morphs. Kate, who has always wanted and expected to follow in her father’s criminal and brutal footsteps, begins to find out things that shake her confidence in the world around her. August so desperately wants to be a real boy but is forced to embrace the monstrous. Because this is a world where murder and violence births monsters, quite literally. There are heart eaters and blood drinkers and rarest and most dangerous of all are the soul stealers.Kate’s father has harnessed these monsters to create a reign of terror. And now these two teenagers find themselves uniting to save their city.
This is an unrelentingly dark story. Sacrifices are made and blood is spilled (so much blood) and evil people do evil things. But ultimately it is a story of discovering and clinging to humanity. I was rooting for Kate and August not because they were shining beacons of goodness in a corrupt world but because they were flawed and broken and morally uncertain. They were trying so hard to be what was expected o them, to do the right thing. And sometimes they failed, and sometimes they won, and it’s the struggle that made them compelling.
I also enjoyed that there is no pretense of a romance in these books. These characters have bigger challenges than first love, and the hard fought bond that emerges is all the more satisfying for it.
The author of Let The Right One In (2004), has brought forth a lyrical horror novel focused on the the interplay of music, bullying, internet fame, and damaged children. Little Star, named for Sweden’s entry in the 1958 Euro-vision Song Contest, opens with the discovery of a baby in the wood’s by mid level Swedish Rock Musician/Producer Lennart. Lennart takes the child back to his house, names her Thers, and raises her in secret only exposing her to music to make her a perfect vessel for singing. It also focuses on Teresa Svenson, a young girl who is bullied by her classmates, writes poetry, and loves trolling people on online forums. When Teresa and Thers meet online, they combine lyrics and music and have a fair amount of success on the Swedish equivalent to American Idol. However, when a record producer abuses their trust Teresa and Thers who never really trusted the adult world, gather together a group of girls who have also been victimized by society. Their obsession and plotting leads to a violent act at a music concert, that will change how you regard ABBA’s Thank You For the Music forever.
I enjoyed this book, although I initially assumed that it we be about a cursed song or have supernatural element. It is instead a chilling portrait of how disaffection, bullying, and cruelty can lead to people rejecting societal norms and creating their own structures that make sense according to the way they view the world. It is worth reading if you like slow burn horror, and also if you have an interest in the Swedish music industry.
For a movie where a supernatural song curses those who hear it, I recommend White: Melody of Death. When the K-Pop group Pink Dolls finds themselves having little success, they move to a new studio and attempt to create a new image. Their producer finds a tape of a song hidden under the floorboards and decides it would be perfect for the band. When the song brings success but also death and destruction, Pink Dolls member En-Jun attempts trace the origin of the song and stop the curse.
There may not be a lot new in this film (if you have seen enough Asian horror films with cursed objects you can probably guess the plot points) but the world of K-Pop idol groups is a unique setting, and the movie has one shocking death that is worth the price of admission.
I decided to read this novel because I found a mention of it in an unrelated book as one of the best novels about first contact and colonization of another planet. However the reference actually was for the Legacy of Heorot (1987), this books prequel. All the big mysteries of the Legacy of Helot are revealed in the first couple of chapters of Beowulf’s Children, so if you were planning to read the prequel , I would recommend doing that first.
This book focuses on a human colony settlement on the planet Avalon. Years after a disastrous encounter with an alien species nearly destroyed the colony; the first generation of children has grown up feeling constrained by their parents’ rules. Confined to an island settlement, the youth of the colony wish to venture to the mainland of Avalon and continue with efforts to colonize the planet. They are left with little chance for adventure and reject their parents’ timidity. The elder generation, still cautious after nearly being wiped out is loath to let the youth explore, as it might attract the aliens, known as Grendels, attention and bring destruction to the colony. Additionally there is a split in the youth generation between natural born children, and those who were grown from embryos on the colony ship.
The youth finally win the chance to explore the mainland, but when the expedition is nearly killed by an unknown presence, the elder generation locks down the colony. A struggle then begins for the future of human settlement on Avalon.
I enjoyed this book, as a story of explorers building a colony on a new world. It also features a unique alien species in the Grendel’s (with an elaborate biology), and an engaging mystery over the fate of the mainland expedition. It raises interesting questions over should a society be guided by cautiousness of age or the fearlessness of youth. Both sides are shown as having sensible arguments for way their attitude is correct.
If you want to see youth politics run-amok and a vision of teenage delinquency designed to scare the squares of America, check out the satirical film Wild in the Streets. When a cynical politician attempts to manipulate the youth vote by running rock star Max Frost as a candidate, he creates a true generational conflict as the voting age is lowered to the age of 14, and adults are forced to tune in and drop out on LSD. Of course every revolution shows the seeds of its own destruction, and the 12 year-olds of America wonder why they can be part of the fun. It’s also the move that originates the stone cold classic rock song Shape of Things to Come (famously covered by the Ramones), and then selling in its old age as a marketing jingle for Target stores.
When paranormal investigator Mike Raglan receives a panicked phone call from his friend Erik Hokart, he finds himself thrust into one of the great unsolved mysteries of the Southwestern United States. His investigation of Hokart’s disappearance while drawing him into a dimension spanning battle against a mysterious force and an ancient enemy.
A couple weeks ago we discussed a fantasy novel that adopted the tropes of the western (Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country). This week we look at a Science Fiction novel that is set in the modern day, adapts the trappings of the western, and is written by perhaps the most celebrated American Western author. Louis L’Amour is best know for works like Hondo (1953, The Daybreakers (1960), and The Californios. While this book sees him science fiction principals (the concepts of multiple dimensions, electronics), it also sees him pose a solution the vanishing of the Anasazi. The Anasazi were a Native American people that occupied a range of land around the states of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. They built cliff houses and pueblos, and had a well developed civilization, and then “vanished” sometime in the 12th or 13th Century BCE.
(I use the term “vanished” because I am speaking form a pop culture perspective that often finds the Anasazi cast as a mysterious and cryptic other. Recent anthropological research has focused around their “vanishing” actually being a migration due to societal and environmental pressures. For more about the Anasazi good starting place can be found in the Wikipedia article Ancient Pueblo Peoples).
This is an interesting book full of action and adventure, that details Raglan’s adventures both in our world and the place where the Anasazi escaped to. On a more personal level, I enjoyed this book because it is one of the few science fiction novels I have actually been to the setting. The novel’s haunted mesa is based on Native American legends about New Mexico’s Urraca Mesa, which is part of the Philmont Boy Scout Ranch. In my younger boy scout days, I had the opportunity to visit the lands of the Anasazi, and it made me seek out this book. If you are looking for an interesting book by an author not normally known for sci-fi, this is a good one.
A number of Pop Culture works have used the Anasazi as a plot element:
Thunderhead (1999) by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child focuses on a scientific facility located in New Mexico and its encounters with strange phenomenon. It includes a different explanation for why the Anasazi disappeared then Haunted Mesa. Also it is part of the larger Relic Novel universe featuring the characters Nora Kelly and Bill Smithback from Preston and Childs’ earlier work.
The X-Files (1993-2002) (“Anasazi”, “The Blessing Way”, “Paperclip” (Season 2), “The Truth” Parts 1 & 2 (Season 9): Legends of the Anasazi, their historical sites, and their traditions play a role in the background of these episodes.
A Thief of Time (1988) by Tony Hillerman is part of the authors Jim Chee/Joe Leaphorn detective series set in and around Native American Reservations in the American Southwest. The Anasazi and their historical sites form a central part of the books mystery. Although not specifically science fiction or fantasy, the is a timeless sense of unreality to some of Hillerman novels. In 2004 PBS produced an adaptation of this novel featuring Wes Studi, Graham Greene, and Peter Fonda.
Reverend Charles Jacobs is a man that has lost his faith. Jamie Morton is a young boy finding his way in the world. Their first meeting was marked by tragedy and a miracle. Over fifty years of history they will encounter each other as both rivals and allies in a quest that will probe the mysteries of the cosmos and the secrets of electricity.
Revival, Stephen King’s newest work paints a generation spanning tale of two people who have been united by fate and common experience. This book is written in the style of a first person memoir with the narrator relating the events. This allows the author to build suspense by mentioning events that will occur in the future in early parts of the book, then circling back to expand on these events at regular points. King has used this technique in several of his recent books, especially the recent Dr. Sleep.
The book focuses on two themes. The first is addiction (a common theme of King’s work) and how to overcome it. The second deals with exploring and encountering the unknown, as well as attracting the attention of beings beyond human understanding. Parts of this book harken back to weird fiction stories of the 1930s when new scientific forces (Electricity, Radiation, etc…) were ascribed all manner of strange powers and properties.to expand humanity’s knowledge, often with disastrous results. This book owes much to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, and also appears to be greatly inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft.
I enjoyed this book, and I think fans of Stephen King will enjoy it. I think horror and science fiction fans will also find it interesting. The dust cover claims that the book features “Stephen King’s most terrifying conclusion ever”. In my opinion it did not live up to that boast.
Stephen King’s books often share links that place them into various universes, most of which joined by the Dark Tower series. This book mentions events and locations from the story Joyland (2013) which means it shares a world with that book as well as The Colorado Kid (2005).
“From Beyond” (1934) by H. P. Lovecraft – This short story relates the narrator’s encounter with Dr. Crawford Tillinghast whose discovery of Tillinghast Resonance allows him to access another dimension and observe its strange inhabitants. Of course this also allows those inhabitants to peer back into our dimension.
From Beyond (1986) Directed by Stuart Gordon and starring Jeffery Combs and Barbra Campton. Fresh from directing an adaptation of the another H.P. Lovecraft story (1985’s Re-Animator) Gordon turns the story into a tale of shape-shifters, body horror, and brightly colored gore. A decent re-telling of the Lovecraft story, but Gordon’s work can be an acquired taste.
When Shy South returns from market rip to find her homestead burned and her brother and sister kidnapped, she sets off to rescue them accompanied by her step father Lamb. Her will journey takes her across the Far Country where she and her allies will confront hostile nature, dangerous outlaws, fierce natives, greed, corruption, and a vainglorious mercenary captain named Nicomo Cosca.
To my mind one of the most fascinating genre mix-ups to arise from speculative fiction is the fantasy or supernatural western. The Western not only provides the central founding mythology goes the United States of America (serving as our King Arthur Story, Mabinogi, or Vedas) but has found itself adapted to address the issues of the times. It seems only natural that fantasy and sci-fi authors would want to try their hand at this most American of genes. Usually these works take the form of either a traditional western setting (America from about 1835-1905) with fantasy elements (magic or the supernatural) or traditional fantasy novels written in the style of a western. Over the next couple of columns these reviews will look at several different aspects of the Western in speculative fiction, starting with Red Country, by Joe Abercrombie.
I picked up this book based on the book jacket’s description of it as a fantasy novel written in the style of a western. I had heard the Joe Abercormbie’s other novels had a reputation for featuring gritty violence and morally conflicted heroes. After starting the book, I realized that several of the characters were from the author’s other works, but Red Country managed to convey who these characters were, and the earlier adventures are not necessary to understanding this story (though those who have read the other books may find certain characters fate more resonant however). I had a conflicted reaction to this book, and I think the best way to review is to riff on the tile of the concluding chapter of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy of films.
Red Country is a well written book. Abercrombie’s prose creates a vivid picture of the environment and the characters, and it gave a clear understanding of the geography of the world they inhabit. The book provides a lot of action, and moves quickly from event to event. It does not devote a lot of the time to extraneous filler and has a very lean structure, which allows it to emulate the classic western novels and films that are its influences. If you are a fan of Abercrombie’s First Law World or his other works, you will probably like this book immensely.
The events of this book read like a greatest hits of the modern western film canon. I easily identified elements of The Searchers, Ride the High Country, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, The Wild Bunch, and of course A Fistful of Dollars. This is in itself not necessarily a weakness of the book as the various western works often use the same situations to different ends and much of the action is based upon a series of stock tropes (hostile natives, the wagon train, the corrupt town, the mysterious stranger with a background stepped in violence). However, in this book I feel the author tried to place one too many western elements in the book, and it made it feel like it was too dependent on the works that had come before it. Additionally, I felt that this book has a problem with its ending as it appears to be heading towards a climactic showdown reminiscent of The Wild Bunch, switches to copy the final scene The Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, before finally deciding that it wants to steal the ending of The Outlaw Josey Wales (an ending which I felt the character who received it did not deserve). How much of a drawback this will be to the readers will depend on ones familiarity with the Western genre I suppose.
Early on in this review I mentioned that this book has a number of stock western characters (the woman with a past, the man of peace who has turned his back on violence but is forced to pick up his old ways, the youngster with no skills seeking vengeance), and this is not a problem as such characters are the bedrock of western fiction. It is what the author does re-conceptualize these roles that count. However, I found one character in this book especially problematic, and I think it is because it is an attempt at a pastiche of a real life western character: the mercenary leader Nicomo Cosca. It was obvious form the introductory paragraph that this character is meant to be a version of the real life General George Armstrong Custer (mostly known for his actions at the Battle of Little Bighorn). This works great as narrative shorthand for conveying everything you need to know about the character, but I felt the similarities to the real Custer detracted from giving Cosca a unique voice and pulled me out of the story. I think that Cosca is one of the characters from Abercrombie’s other works, as there seems to be a lot of back-story to his role in the storyline.
In short I think Red Country is a great book for fans of modern, darker edged fantasy, fans of Joe Abercormbie’s other works, and anyone looking for a crash course in the history of western film since about 1965.
Related works – Mad Amos and Blood Meridian
Mad Amos (1996) – Alan Dean Foster
The best fantasy/western I have read is this collection of short stories by Alan Dean Foster. Mad Amos is a mountain man/scout in the American frontier who rides a unicorn named Worthless and battles supernatural and occult threats.
Blood Meridian (1992) – Cormac McCarthy
McCarthy’s Blood Meridian is a truly gritty western about morally compromised people traveling across a hostile and dangerous land. The Judge (the books main villain) and his band of mercenary’s depredations make Nicomo Cosca and his men look like armatures at the art of violence.