Monday, January 30, 2012

Review: The Company, by K.J. Parker

This book was ruined for me by an offhand comment I saw after reading it. ‘Hey,’ the comment said, ‘wouldn’t The Company have been a really awesome horror story?’

And damn it. Because, yes, The Company would have made a truly awesome horror story. Now, instead appreciating it for what it was, all I can think about is what it could have been. Which is stupidly unfair of me. It’s like going to a Chinese restaurant and then getting upset because the food isn’t French enough. It’s not like Miss Peregine’s House of Peculier children which openly promised creepy goodness and delivered nothing of the sort. At no point does The Company claim to be a horror novel, and nowhere have a seen it marketed as such.

And yet… what a horror novel it could have been!

Five guys who were close knit when they fought side beside in a war but have since drifted a part reunite with an ambitious plan to settle on an abandoned island. They hire some servants, find some wives, and set off. We get a few hints about a hurriedly and mysteriously abandoned colony, and seemed a reasonable assumption to make that whatever made the original inhabitants clear out would also come for our heroes.

Except, no. It’s just not that kind of book. The Company is a close study of the relationship between the five men, who were once closer than brothers and have now barely spoken for a decade. They have secrets (of course they have secrets, this is KJ Parker book after all), and it's not long before these secrets start to make things complicated.

Anyone who had read anything by K.J.Parker knows that characters are her strong suite. She excels at creating realistically flawed men and women who are rarely wholly good or wholly bad. And while the five men are the focus of the book, Parker also devotes a lot of attention to their wives, only one of whom was courted and married in the traditional sense. The others were acquired in much the same way as the grain, boots and other things needed for the trip. It makes for some diverse and interesting viewpoints.

But the best part about this book is learning who these men are, what they’ve done and what they mean to each over. Which makes it hard to review because most everything I could discuss is a spoiler. Plot wise not a whole lot actually happens in The Company. It’s split between the present as the men struggle to establish a liveable colony and flashbacks of the war. It was fascinating to see how the dynamics between the men have changed and what has stayed the same over the years. The slow reveal of various secrets and events added more suspense to the book than you might have expected from the thin plot, and there’s a real sense of impending doom that hangs over the whole thing. (*cough* Not unlike as in a horror novel *cough*).

I will say that given the slow build of this novel I thought the ending was way too rushed. It reminded me a bit of Stephen King in that respect, great start great middle, disappointing finish. It wasn’t enough to ruin the book for me though, and if I can ever forgive it for not being a horror novel I’m sure I’ll remember it most fondly.

This book was a birthday gift

Review: Daughter of Smoke and Bone, by Laini Taylor

One of my least favourite literary tropes is the whole idea of “instant love.” You know how it goes, hero and heroine see each other for the first time and there’s a mysterious yet undeniable pull drawing them together. There’s no point fighting it, they were made each other, when they touch sparks fly, and blah blah barf.

And while I’ll agree that when it comes to books what people like and don’t like is highly subjective, I don’t think my dislike of literary soul mates is all on me. Because let’s be honest here, more often than not, the whole thing is handled pretty poorly.

Because it’s lazy. The author doesn’t want to go to the effort of actually showing the characters falling in love, so they just make it fate or destiny or some rubbish. It's a cheap shortcut. I don’t deny that two people can experience an immediate attraction for one another, but there’s a big difference between that and instantly professing undying love.

But that’s the funny thing about books isn’t it. Something can be done poorly 99.9% of the time, but that doesn’t mean that, in the hands of a skilled writer, it can’t be done well. Enter Daughter of Smoke and Bone. A book that seemed to have been tailor made to display everything I dislike in a book. Split between Earth and another world (I prefer my books to pick a dimension and commit), featuring a quirky female protagonist (with blue hair, if you don’t mind) and, of course, the insta-love. But while I disregarded it at first, when every single review blog that I followed started to post glowing reviews, I decided I had better give the book a chance.

And wow. I’m definitely glad I did, because this is one beautiful book. And it’s not that as though Taylor’s take on things is groundbreakingly new and original. If any other author had taken the exact same plot and written it out scene for scene in their own style, I doubt I would have like it. Because it’s the style that raises this book from ‘eh, ok,’ to freaking amazing. Taylor’s prose is just incredible.

She writes with a deceptively simple elegance that was a joy to read. And I know that sounds like one of those things that people just say, but I mean it literally. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered an author who could create such fantastic and vivid scenery in my head. And she would to it with only a couple of beautifully wrought sentences. I mean, here I am stumbling clumsily around trying to convey how effortless and stunning Taylor’s prose is, whereas she could probably get the same point across twice as well in seven words.

Even the endless descriptions of how beautiful the two main characters were didn’t bug me as much as it normally would have, and trust me, there is a lot of reflecting on the beauty of the two leads. But it’s balanced out by a creepy and inventive magic system where all gains come with real consequences, side characters with actual depth and a real world setting (Prague) that seems as magical as any fantastic location I’ve ever read about.

I can’t but think that if this is what Taylor does with a slightly above average paranormal romance plot, imagine what she could do with a genre I actually like! I know that from this point on I shall be following Taylor’s career with great interest.

I bought this book

Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman

The premise of Anno Dracula might seem a little out there, but it's straightforward enough. It’s a Victorian London where every fictional vampire ever written is real (along with a bunch of other fictional folk), and Dracula is married to the Queen. Jack the Ripper is on the prowl, targeting only vampire whores and tensions between vampires and “warms” (humans) are rising.

Whenever I go to describe this book I found myself saying things like ‘a cracker read,’ and ‘a rollicking good time, by Jove.’ All said with a rubbish British accent, natch. The book is just so overwhelmingly and charmingly British, circa the 1800s. Everything is all correct manners and cricket and chivalry. But at the same time Newman pulls off the impressive trick of sounding authentic and modern at the same time. The book did not read like a novel in 1880, is read like a novel set in 1880. A small but important distinction, if you ask me.

And you might think that all the Britishness would get old after a while, but I never found this to be so. The plot and characters are strong enough to carry it, and it makes for a highly unique and enjoyable read.

In some ways the book reminded me of Gail Carriger’s ‘Soulless,’ although ‘Anno Dracula’ has almost 20 years on it. But it’s a similar setting, and one where vampires have only just come out of the closet, as it were. Newman, however, delves far deeper into the ramifications and politics of this than does Carriger, and it was one of my favourite aspects of the book. I also enjoyed that, while many steampunk authors tend to glamorize the era, Newman does not shy away from the uglier side of the time. When asked what would they eat when everyone in Britain was a vampire one character points out, in a most reasonable manner, that they would simply import Africans to serve as cattle. A repulsive idea to you and me of course, but the matter of fact way its said in the book shines a light on the way people thought back then.

This book is also a literary nerd’s dream. The world Newman has created feels fresh and original, but really is the results of taking a whole bunch of other books and smooshing them together. There are scores of familiar faces, from Dracula to Jack the Ripper to Dr. Jekyll. But more fun than the named characters are the ones only mentioned in passing. I was ridiculously proud of myself when I spotted Anne Rice’s Lestat from only a sentence of description. ‘Oh ho,’ I thought to myself, ‘I bet not too many others were canny enough to notice that!’ Then I looked on the internet and realized for that one little reference that I’d gotten there were, oh, a bazzallion others that I’d missed.

And it didn’t effect my enjoyment of the book at all. So if your knowledge of classic works of horror is limited, don’t let it put you off this book. My only issue was that sometimes I would be unsure if a character was Newman’s original creation or if he’d borrowed them from somewhere. It would pull me out of the story a little and I’d have to go look it up to be sure.

The book technically isn’t steampunk, but the rise of the genre is almost undoubtedly why the book got reissued. I’m sure steampunk fans would get a real kick out of, as will vampire fans or horror fans or queen Victoria fans or, well, pretty much anyone who likes there fiction a little on the quirky side.

I bought this book

Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: Vacation, by Matthew Costello

It's never a good sign when you sit down to review a book you finished only a few days ago and realise that you can’t actually remember any of the character’s names. In my head they’ve become ‘the cop dad’ or ‘the teenage daughter,’ which would tell me, if I didn’t already know, that the characters in 'Vacation' lack any kind of depth. They come across like stand ins. As though when the author was sitting down to sketch out his story plan he said ‘ok, so there’s a dad, and he’s a cop,’ and then forgot to go any deeper.

But I know some people are able to enjoy books with flat characters, and so I suspect there are people out there who will enjoy 'Vacation.' It’s an action packed little books, one that you finish really fast even if you weren’t intending to. A cop gets injured on the job and decides to take his family on a holiday, except when they get to the holiday park things are not what they seem.

Oh, and there’s zombies.

‘Vacation’ takes what I couldn’t help but think of as the ‘Feed’ approach to zombies. The story is not about them. They’re an established part of the world, shambling about in the background while the main storyline plays out.

Which is not a criticism. I actually really like this approach. The first few desperate hours following a zombie apocalypse can be thrilling, but I also enjoy reading about societies that have adapted to co-exist with with their new shambling neighbors. This is probably ‘Vacation’s’ strongest point. The zombies have only been around for a decade or so, and while people are holding on you get the impression that things are still getting worse and worse. Fresh food is a real luxury, with most people living off perfectly healthy but unappetizing genetically modified food. I liked the way that the youngest son tends to fixate upon food, as he has never known a world where it was not scarce.

I say that this was the book’s strongest point. A less charitable part of me wants to say it was the books only strong point. The plot is unpredictable only in its predictableness. You think to you self, ‘no, that’s not going to happen it’s way too obvious’ and then it’s a small surprise when the obvious thing actually happens. Again and again.

I think maybe the book should have been longer. They get to the camp and instead of slowly jacking up the feelings of ‘not rightness’ for a few days, let the characters and the reader grow increasingly uneasy, things happen way, way too quickly. The reader isn’t given a chance to get attached to Officer whats-his-name and his family before their lives are in danger, which lowers the suspense considerably (and is another side effect of replacing real characters with cardboard cutouts).

Plus, ok, here is my biggest grievance against this book. I almost didn’t say anything because it verges on nitpicky, but it really spoiled the book for me. Mistakes in the continuity. Glaring ones! In an early chapter the cop refers to his wife as a really light sleeper and she always wakes up when he comes to bed. Then, in a later chapter, he thinks about how he’ll have no trouble sneaking out because his wife is such a heavy sleeper. The one thing this book has going for it is that it barrels along and you get caught up in it, but errors like that bring the whole thing to a screeching halt. I have to go flicking back through the pages to see if I read it wrong, which obviously yanks you right out of the story. And it’s not like that was the only example. At one point the cop thinks that his kid’s screaming is going to get them all killed, then only a few paragraphs later, mere paragraphs for crying out loud, he’s thinking about how proud he was that his kid never made a sound. I mean come on!

But like I said, it’s a quick read. And even though it’s all very obvious what is going to happen and it could have used a more thorough edit, I can’t say that I was ever bored. I would recommend this book to people who don’t care about characters as much as I do, or people who really like zombies in all their forms.

I bought this book.