Review: The Gone-Away World, by Nick Harkaway

April 21, 2015
Snumpus

The Gone-Away WorldBack when the world was still our world, humanity came up with a weapon, as humanity always does. This weapon made the enemy simply go away. Unfortunately, as history should’ve taught us but never quite seems to, it wasn’t as simple as all that. Now humanity lives in a zone clustered around the Jorgmund Pipe, which delivers the FOX that keeps away the unreal horrors of the Gone-Away world. When part of the Pipe catches fire, threatening the supply, our unnamed narrator, his best friend, and their crew of freebooters are hired to manage the situation.

Based on that description, you’ll probably go in expecting a fairly straight post-apocalyptic dystopia. I did. You will probably then, by the end of chapter three, be wondering what the fuck is going on. I did that too. So I would advise that you not go in expecting post-apocalyptic dystopia, that you not go in expecting science fiction, that you definitely not go in expecting sobriety — in fact, inasmuch as you are able, to go in expecting as little in regards to setting or genre as possible.

What you can expect is one of the funniest, most intelligent pieces of blistering anti-establishment satire that I have ever read. You can expect a bitingly cynical take on everything from corporate culture to our species’ need to engage in pissing contests on a devastatingly global scale over things we don’t really need. You can expect an examination of humanity, identity, and friendship, and how those things intertwine, that oscillates between the heartwarming and the bone-chilling. You can expect digressions and tangents that wind off down so many twisting corridors I started to lose track, and didn’t care in the slightest because I was giggling so inanely. You can expect a book that, perhaps chief among its many accomplishments, may very well cause you to like mimes.

Because yes, there are mimes. And ninjas. The mimes are a lot nicer than the ninjas. Although it’s intensely intelligent and humanistic and, dare I say, political, it’s not afraid to be a zany girls- and guns-filled adventure story at the same time. I learned from Sir Terry Pratchett that serious and humorous are not opposite ends of the same spectrum, and just about every part of this novel is an excellent illustration of that principle. For instance, our narrator’s gong fu master is full of sage advice, genial humour, and whacky quotes as befitting any cheesy martial arts film, but he’s also a sobering reminder of the loneliness of aging and the way our society treats the aged.

Approaching the end of the book, there is a twist, one which I saw coming — at least in part — a while before it arrived, and yet it still managed to rock me with the gravity of the revelation. It shines a whole different light on everything that’s come before, and yet does so in a way that clicks into place without feeling like shock value or, worse, a retcon. This would be a fascinating book to reread with that knowledge in mind, in addition to my desire to reread so I can take note of all the passages I found hilarious, because there were far too many to slow myself down doing that on a first read-through.

Harkaway’s writing is ineluctable; not flowery, not highly literary, but very deliberate even when conversationally rambling off down one of the many tangents, precisely pushing the reader’s patience just so far in setting up the most glorious punchlines.

I’ve refrained from sharing any of those so far, partly because I didn’t take the time to mark them all down and partly because I would hate to spoil the best of the giggles and the insights this book has to offer, but I must offer the passage about the shrew, which I also spent a day foisting off on anyone who would listen to me:

The building in which he works is a grey slab with stern windows and poorly chosen organic paint colours which are intended to produce a stable and relaxing working environment (as per directive Ev/9) but in fact cause the entire complex to resemble the messy interior plumbing of a sickly bison. The strip lighting (low energy as per directive Ev/6) is responsible for much of this, because it emits in the green and purple areas of the spectrum, which are not tints favourable to a feeling of general good health. Further, this illumination is produced by ultra-high-frequency discharges of an electric current through a tube of fluorescing gas, meaning that they flicker at a given (enormously rapid) rate, this frequency being one which sadly produces tension, annoyance and migraines in 81 per cent of adult humans, and has the interesting side effect of causing tachycardia in shrews. Shrews being very susceptible to stress, and having in any case ill-designed cardiovascular systems, it is safe to assume that any shrew entering Mr. Hoare’s workplace with the intention of asking him for a job would be dead before it had gone five metres down the long corridor I am currently attempting, and would thereby instantly convert itself into organic waste and be disposed of by the sanitation crew. Should the shrew turn out to contain elevated or even toxic levels of chemical waste, or should there be cause to suspect, by reason of signs of aberrant and un-shrew-like behaviour or outward symptoms of transmissible disease such as, but not limited to, rashes, bleeding, elevated temperature and coughing, evidence of pre-mortem deliquescence, or petechial haemorrhaging, that the aforementioned shrew was in fact the carrier of a biological agent, the business of disposal would be handed over to a hazmat team trained in these matters, and the tiny body would be removed in a suitable container by men and women wearing spacesuits and taken to a place of investigation to ascertain the level of the threat and also to tease from the tiny, terrified corpse any forensic evidence suggesting that it might be involved in anti-statist activities, that it might, in fact, be a suicide shrew.

If that passage doesn’t make you want to read this book, there’s something wrong with you, my friend.

5 stars

Review: The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

April 21, 2015
Snumpus

The Night CircusI have a neurological quirk called synaesthesia, in which a stimulus to one sense produces a simultaneous response from another. One of the strongest ways that manifests for me is that when I listen to music, the music has colour; I like to take those colours and spin images and daydreams out of them, so in my mind it’s a little like wandering through vibrant clouds and castles made of song. This is a very difficult thing to describe to people who do not have it. Le Cirque des Rêves of The Night Circus feels like something a synaesthetic mind would whisk up during a powerful song: Snatches of colour caught and shaped into a dream that marches to its own rhythm, and fades with the music’s end. Something that a minority of people can visit, and no one can really understand.

Marco and Celia, and the magicians’ struggle they are destined to be locked into as they age, are ostensibly our protagonists, but I would argue that the main character of the novel is the circus itself, and their competition exists primarily both to give it life and to lend a sense of fatalism to the ending or transformation we know has to come, as surely as the first falling leaf means the rest have to die. Sometimes I wondered why they didn’t walk away, a question that does eventually receive an answer, but also doesn’t really matter. The characters in this novel are distant and feylike and sometimes as obtuse in their motivations as those very fey, and the only times they rise off the page are when the outside world touches them, or when they spin a wonder great enough that they manage to touch each other.

Marco in particular embodies that dichotomy. With an abandoned paramour, he’s so cold and far away he might as well be made of stone, and even with a mentor figure he seems callous and disconnected, with only the most absent-minded regard for the man’s humanity and his own impact upon it. He’d be easy to dislike if he didn’t transform at the mere presence of Celia, if the chemistry between the two of them weren’t so intense that they are both elevated by it. Even Celia, who is more charitably depicted, especially in her friendship with a clockmaker who builds a devoted following sharing their love of the circus, seems to gain more presence on the page in everything to do with Marco, even simply in her playful collaborations with him from afar. It is definitely not a romance, but it is quite a good love story.

Sometimes the behaviour of everyone, but especially the female characters who wander around unchaperoned and unconcerned, seems anachronistic, but Le Cirque des Rêves and everyone who touches it seem disconnected from time and place, occupants of a fragile bubble that liberates them even as it seems ever on the verge of popping. For some of them, it does; like most beautiful things, The Night Circus is often delicately sad.

Much of its beauty lies in the prose. I’m fairly certain that if Morgenstern were to describe the grass growing, I would read it. If the human characters are ephemeral, the circus leaps off the page in such vibrant fullness of life that it’s one of the few books to make me wish I could paint, so I had somewhere for the images to go. I’m reminded at least a little of the writing of Patricia McKillip, whom I also consider a master of rich prose and dreamlike fantasy. I really enjoy the clockwork motif that runs through the story and contrasts with its feeling of timelessness.

After much hopping back and forth between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th, the plot arrives at a conclusion that is adequate but slightly forced, and largely unremarkable, having never really been the point anyway. I did feel like the punches were pulled slightly, like it would have been more authentic to let go of certain characters, to give their last choice harsher consequences. But if I’m honest, I also didn’t care all that much, as I never really saw the whole concept of the magicians’ duel as more than a framing device.

I think if you like your novels to be story-driven above all else, this one is unlikely to grip you, and it may not capture the crowd looking for a character piece either. It’s full of dreamlike gaps in logic, and character consistency is knowingly sacrificed at the altar of whimsy. If, however, you are the type to be entranced by colour and light and poetic imagery, if you’re the type to merrily stare into space while you wander from dream to memory, if in short you are a navel gazer and a daydreamer like me, The Night Circus deserves a place on your shelf.

4.5 stars

Review: Half-Resurrection Blues (Bone Street Rumba #1), by Daniel José Older

April 19, 2015
Snumpus

Half-Resurrection BluesCarlos Delacruz is an inbetweener, a man half-alive with no memory of the time before his death, in the employ of New York’s Council of the Dead. When the Council send him after another inbetweener, Carlos learns that he is not unique, that there are more than just the two of them, and he is charged, with the man’s dying breath, to protect his victim’s sister — from his own employers. And in a neighbourhood that plays home to a ghost dear to Carlos, one who shepherded him into his new half-life when he awoke from death, there are sightings of the impish creatures known as ngks, known to herald — or cause — disaster.

On a technical level, Older’s writing is such a step above what I find in most investigative urban fantasy. The evocative prose complements the remarkable sense of place in this fictional New York. I’m used to urban fantasy books set in American cities feeling very generic. Big cities are full of history and short on personal space. They’re full of different ethnicities and languages and religions and foods. They’re a cacophony of honking car horns and exhaust fumes and people pouncing on you every five steps to convert you or sell you a Rolex. But in the pages of this genre, they’re too often empty, sterile spaces populated by straight English-speaking WASPs and the only other five equally WASPy people they seem to share the streets with. The Brooklyn of Half-Resurrection Blues is a welcome change for the livelier. I’ve been to New York City, my only trip to the United States so far, but aside from having been driven through it and over the iconic bridge, I haven’t exactly seen Brooklyn. It comes to life on the page such that from half a world away, I can visualise it and appreciate its distinctiveness from the more familiar Manhattan.

The supernatural portion of Older’s Brooklyn is infused with colour as well, from its grim and eerie portrayal of the afterlife, to the cultural fusion of the traditions of its living denizens, to the simultaneously hilarious and spine-chilling unkillable ngks and their, erm, exercise bikes of woe. (It’s not as goofy as it sounds. Well, actually it is, but it’s goofy in a way that really works.) I’d have liked to see and understand more of the NYCOD and the machinations behind their hold over the dead and dead-adjacent of the city, but since this is the first book in a series I imagine too much too soon would dispel the mystique, and I expect there’ll be more of that in later volumes.

The main thing that brings this down from a great read to a good one for me is, unfortunately, Carlos himself. To put it simply, Carlos is kind of a shitty person. I’m not generally at all opposed to reading books about people who aren’t very nice — the antihero is a trope for a reason — but Carlos isn’t an antihero or an interesting dabbler in moral grey areas. He is shitty in the way that far too many everyday people are shitty. He kills a man and then decides, on the basis of nothing more than a photograph, that he’s going to romantically pursue this man’s sister, because she’s hot. When he does actually get romantically entangled with her, he seems to have little interest in who she is as a person and absolutely zero concern for the fact that the pain she’s going through is something he caused, except insofar as it might get him caught and deny him access to this person whose life he ruined but who he still thinks he has some kind of right to, because, you know, she’s hot.

While criticism of Carlos for behaving this way is valid, perhaps it’s unfair to criticise the book for portraying him as such, because guys who view women with a certain level of entitlement towards their beauty and a total lack of regard for their emotional dimensions are certainly very realistic, and this is a novel that can be lauded for its realism. But making one of them a protagonist is a choice, and when you spend your life trying to avoid exactly that kind of man, being plunged into the mind of one is not really an enjoyable way to spend your reading time. It’s odd that I am more comfortable being in the minds of evil sorcerers and serial killers than I am of a man like Carlos, but that’s why it’s not a problem that he’s a shitty person, it’s a problem that he’s a mundane shitty person — I’m far less likely to be murdered or cursed by a dark lord than I am to deal with a man to whom a woman’s grief or other emotions are secondary to her status as a sex object.

This might be one of those books that would have worked better for me in third person than first, where Sasha could have had room to grow into a character independent of Carlos’s gaze and the narrative might have seemed less approving of it, but since we’re stuck in Carlos’s squalid mind, it’s all I have to go on.

I will read the next book in this series when it comes along, because I want to see more of this Brooklyn, and I want to spend more time with Daniel José Older’s luscious prose. I expect, however, that unless Carlos gets a personality transplant I’d have far more fun with Older’s writing if it featured a change of protagonist to someone who isn’t trying so desperately hard to be a dudebro. Hey, can Kia get a book? She’s awesome.

3 stars

Review: The Neverending Story, by Michael Ende

April 9, 2015
Snumpus

The Neverending StoryLike most of my generation, I grew up watching the film adaptation of The Neverending Story. I watched it until it was seared into my memory — and probably into my mother’s — and wanted a trip to Fantastica and a Falkor of my very own. Somehow, though, I never read the book.

The other day I plucked it off the shelf on a whim. Sometimes when I read a book after seeing the film or television adaptation, I don’t visualise the adaptation at all, my mental landscape stays composed of my own original images. In this case, I had the characters and the lands from the film in mind, and I think I benefitted from that, because the Fantastica on the screen seems more alive than the Fantastica on the page.

The first half of the book corresponds to the first film, and it is definitely the most powerful part of the story. It has the resonance of fable wrapped up in a beautiful adventure. It’s about the importance of fantasy and imagination to the well-being of the human mind. It’s about the importance of courage, and the fact that bravery doesn’t always look the way we expect it to, that there are different ways to be brave. It’s about grief, and the ways we retreat from it. It’s about identity, about letting go of the old and not fearing the new, about the rebirth and renewal that usually, somehow, comes in the wake of a loss. And it’s about how those things are simple but not easy, and it trusts children to understand them without being heavy-handed.

On the strengths of that first half, I would gladly call it one of the best children’s books of all time. The second half, however, has important things to say too, but it goes about saying them in a much more muddled fashion. At its best, it’s a counterpoint to part one, the dark serpent to the first half’s light. It’s there to remind us that fantasy is there to give wings to who we really are, not to escape from ourselves, that the courage we’ve always dreamed of cannot really exist in the fearless. It’s there to remind us, when we recreate ourselves, not to lose ourselves. It’s there to remind us that grief is something we can come back from.

But it’s also hampered by a terribly plodding pace, a character who cannot be externally challenged by anything and takes too long to face up to the challenge going on inside. The loss of the dual narrative from the first part of the book is also a hindrance, because Bastian isn’t really likeable in this state — and no, he’s not meant to be — but the concurrent sidelining of Atreyu and Falkor leaves little in the way of protagonists to relate to for some pages at a time. If you reach the end of the book, you see how the two halves were meant to balance and complement each other, and how the second half strengthens and builds on the themes of the first. It’s just concerning that a lot of children might not get to that point because of the chapters where it commits the cardinal sin for a children’s book: Being boring.

For those of us feigning adulthood in our outward lives, however, it’s one of those stories that is just ageless and timeless, especially if you’re part of the generation for whom the film versions of these characters are so iconic. I think for younger readers this is the sort of book that would ideally be read to them by a parent, for its storybook tone and to help pass the plodding but not pointless second half in a more entertaining fashion, and so that the love of these memorable characters can be shared between generations.

4 stars

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