We Are Pirates by Daniel Handler

piratesOK, I did not like this. But what makes it rare is that, unlike most books I don’t like, this one is actually well written. Handler can write a character sketch and spin a phrase.There’s even an effective twist that I still found fun/surprising at the end of the novel when I no longer cared about anything and just wanted to finish. He just can’t write a believable plot or acknowledge the reader can only spend so much time with blandly reprehensible characters.

Pirates alternates between fourteen year old Gwen Needle and her dad, Phil. At first, this seems like it is going to be a tale of oblivious father and teen angsty daughter at odds that eventually bond/appreciate each other. But it is quickly revealed that Phil is actually a passive misogynist prick who thinks the world is owed to him and cares very little of his family beyond the happiness / convenience they can supply him*. Gwen has more than average teen angst when the reader realizes that she actually does have shitty parents. Unfortunately, the sympathy this garners Gwen morphs to baffled disbelief when it turns out she basically has the psychosis of a school shooter and she starts knifing fools with impunity.

Back to Phil: The book spends a lot of words on this asshole. As his sliminess is further revealed, as his terrible outlook on women is explored, as his martyr complex deepens whilst he remains oblivious to his privilege… it’s too much. There’s only so much undeserved self pity I can handle. Whine whine whine. He never learns and his plotline is pointless and could be excised almost entirely from this already slim book.

And back to Gwen: As punishment for shoplifting, our heroine is forced to volunteer at an old folks home. She starts hanging out with a dementia-riddled old navyman and after borrowing all his old seafaring books, starts harboring fantasies of piracy…

…and assembles a ‘crew’.

…and steals a ship.

…and launches a revenge-crusade upon all that have wronged her by pillaging the San Francisco bay.

 

This is completely ridiculous.

 

She’s fourteen, not eight. The Bay** is tiny, what are you actually going to get away with? Why did anyone, other than the old man and best friend, possibly join her? Why is she suddenly capable of remorseless, senseless murder? Note to all readers, children, writers: Having a passive, non-dad does not make it okay to kill, nor is it reason enough to maintain reader empathy with a stone-cold killer.

And here lies the crux of the book, and why it does not succeed.

*There’s a sort of murky almost-theme about people being emotional pirates — pillaging other people’s feelings for their own gain. It’s not well explored but kind of vomited up by Phil’s POV towards the end of the book.

**While it was pleasantly meta reading a book taking place on the 38 bus while riding the 38 bus, the novel does not do a good job of realizing San Francisco. Phil drives from LA to SF… and crosses the Bay Bridge (for plot convenience), which is in the east, not south. Despite living on the Embarcadero, Gwen does not know of the sea lions on Pier 39 until events in the book. Even Geary Street, the road that the 38 travels down is poorly described — Handler makes it quiet and seedy, and while it’s kind-of-maybe-slightly seedy at a few points, it’s bustling almost from beginning to end. Not quiet.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Last Defender of Camelot by Roger Zelazny

Last_defender_of_camelotJust look at that cover.

Written in the 60s and 70s, wreathed in a halo of cigarette smoke, amidst the fallout of an assured nuclear war, this collection of stories embodies an era. An era where a man could make a living writing dozens of short stories a year — filling plentiful sci-fi/fantasy magazines to the point where he needed pen names to allow multiple stories in the same issue.

Roger Zelazny’s stories follow a peculiar cosmology. Humanity is almost always extinct, or else we’re on our way to being so. Typically there are now robots or some kind of AI machines trying to emulate, understand, or ritualize the acts of the long dead humans. Even so far as racing stock cars or turning into vampire bots. Take away the radioactivity and craters, and everything else about the post apocalyptic wasteland he evisions matches up with modern sci-fi writers post-climate change future. No nuclear warheads necessary like they were in the 60s.

Many of the stories are very short, though there are three longer novellas in the middle. The first and longest one, He Who Shapes, is unfortunately a super weak sci-fi noir tale. It’s the only story where the casual misogyny of the time and genre was really distasteful (to me). The second novella, the tale of former ex-con biker literally named ‘Hell’ as he tries to drive a rocket-launcher armed, spinning blade equipped armored car across a post apocalyptic US from the nation of California to the country of Boston, is so completely silly and ridiculous it somehow turns out compelling. The last, For a Breath I Tarry, a story of sentient machines trying to recover the memory of man in a frozen over future earth is by far the best. Unlike most modern writers, Zelazny can write a story that is quite clearly allegory or metaphor in a straightforward manner that embraces its own internal story consistency without feeling the need to wink or gesture at the reader ro point out how clever and/or deep he is being.

Zelzany’s prose is better than most genre writers, and indeed he has a little intro at the start of the book where he says an integral piece of him becoming a good writer was to stop insulting the reader’s intelligence. The sparse prose that often references classical verse becomes jarring and kind of hilarious/fun when a very silly sci fi trope suddenly bounds on to the page. It’s fascinating how the original sci-fi grandmasters all city their inspiration as the literary greats — when I see modern genre writers list their influences, it’s typically just past genre writers.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Best American Essays 2014 edited by John Jeremiah Sullivan

bestessays2014Last year it was all about divorced self absorption and the shadow of dead parents. What’s the theme this year, eh? Guest editor John Jeremiah Sullivan launches the book* with the hardline stance of the granddaddy-of-all-essays Michel de Montaigne: by examining oneself, one can examine all humanity.

And this is how the essays tie to one another. A writer investigates something — say, the burning man festival, child abuse, or a rare disease — and extrapolates it far beyond the personal to a universal shared experience. Typically death is involved. Death of self, death of parents, death of innocence, death of children, and so on. The Ultimate Concern. Lo, us poor creatures who became aware of our own guaranteed annihilation.

The thing about these essays is they are almost never bad or even mediocre; An essay on being introduced as a public speaker, the only piece that doesn’t quite mesh with Sullivan/Montaigne’s universal appeal theme is curiously the only one I straight up didn’t like. But. There’s also very few that are exceptional. The best essay in the book I had already read and I’ve already forgotten several of them.

The Best Ones:

Thanksgiving in Mongolia by Ariel Levy — A 5 month pregnant woman stubbornly decides to fly to Ukraine for a journalism piece. More to prove she can do it to herself and everyone else rather than any pressing political-writing need.Then the pain starts. Chilling, awe-inspiring, and hard to forget. I read this months ago, but it was just as powerful the second time around.

The Man at the the River by Dave Eggers — An American man and his Sudanese friend rest by a river; The Sudanese wants to wade the river but the American does not for fear of catching an infection in a deep gash on his leg. Cultural differences abound. This is almost a parable. No one is named and it’s very short, but perfectly encapsulates its theme: a westerner desperately trying to avoid being a stereotype, even as it inevitably occurs.

The Devil’s Bait by Leslie Jamison – Jamison attends a conference in support of Morgellons disease, a rare affliction that may or may not even be ‘real’ and affects people differently. They might feel worms crawling out of their skin, or get very itchy, or have little crystals start protruding from their flesh. The professional medical community is fairly sure it’s a psychological problem, but the affected patients gather, trying to take pictures or bring ziplocked evidence of their foreign growths. Or just for moral and social support. Jamison wonders if it honestly matters whether the symptoms are ‘real’ — that is, actual organic crystals or worms protruding from skin. If the suffering is so acutely felt, shouldn’t that be all that’s required for our empathy?

 

*OK, so Sullivan’s essay doesn’t actually start the book. There’s a brief introduction by series editor Robert Atwan, who has been running this every year since 1985, the year I was born. His topic is nothing less than the assault on Truth and Free Speech and Censorship in America. It’s embarrassingly out of touch and feels profoundly old.

His adversary of choice are ‘trigger warnings’, which he totally mischaracterizes to suit his point of an America in danger of censorship. Trigger warnings are bits of text preceding a piece, warning of potentially upsetting content. Not upsetting like a fly in your spaghetti, not upsetting like a bad piece of world news ruining your mood, but the sort of upsetting Great-Great Uncle Jim, trench veteran of WWI, felt when he was diving for cover, dazed and terrified at any old loud noise. It’s to stop people who have suffered greatly from having to relieve that suffering or potentially trigger a PTSD response. And indeed, the two back-to-back child abuse essays in 2014 (a mean trick of listing things in alphabetical order) are devastating, important, and extremely well written; but I would never ask someone who had experienced anything so terrible to read either without warning.

Instead, Atwan sees trigger warnings as a content endorsement for the general ‘young’ American populace to avoid reading anything that makes them uncomfortable. He also refers to a story written in 1980’s Baltimore street vernacular as ‘A Clockwork Orange-esque’. Uh. Being embarrassed by Grandpa here…

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher by Hilary Mantel

Book cover:  "The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories."  MagHilary Mantel is a Big Deal. For good reason; two time booker prize winner and all around great writer. This means the inevitable: Collect bits of flotsam and jetsam, short pieces from individual assignments over the last 25 years, and publish them in one honestly sparse volume and cash in on that book of short stories.

She’s a good enough writer that it’s still a pleasure to read. The stories are generally about women amidst divorce, ennui, writing, yearning. Only one, about a writer caught in a depressive cycle of speaking engagements, is unsatisfactory. The highlight was a subtle piece that begins innocently with a person lamenting their job working at a doctor’s office, before going off into stranger territory.

The eponymous final story did not do much for me. Perhaps you need to be English to feel the true impact. I thought The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher was going to be an ironic title, but it is quite literal — a woman has an assassin enter her house whilst Thatcher is at an eye doctor nearby, and he assassinates her. It boils down to musing how events might have gone differently:

History could always have been otherwise. For there is the time, the place, the black opportunity: the day, the hour, the slant of light, the ice-cream van chiming from a distant road near a bypass.

Pretty but forgettable.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

J by Howard Jacobson

jThis book left me baffled, confused, and more than a little angry. As the plot is boring and amounts to nothing, the only real interesting point of discussion occurs in the last twenty percent of the book and thus this review will contain some spoilers.

A great catastrophe occurs in humanity’s near future. Later titled WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, the details are lost as history, indeed any recollection of the past, is forbidden. Technology is frozen, and in some cases gone backwards. Internet and mobile phones are banned. Censorship has restricted all but the most empty and vapid of books, music. Movies seem to have disappeared. All this government-ordained. As a result, people have become rote and boring. They’ve settled for petty antagonism and widespread misogyny instead of their past industriousness. It’s an off-putting and honestly strange thought that the first sign of deterioration in this tightly controlled culture is men hitting women.

Fortysomething year old Kevern, a peevish and indifferent man with OCD tendencies meets and falls in love with ninteen year old Ailinn, whose defining characteristics seems to be a Moby Dick metaphor (she insists she is the white whale and Ahab is on her trail) and her unconvincing fondness for Kevern. The characters are all unlikeable and banal, except for Ailinn, who is merely banal. They’re self-aware and even have a conversation about their own meta-banality. They’re a sort of bland-distasteful unlikeable that does not evoke much genuine feeling. You’d hurry by them in the street or avoid them at work, not curse their name. Not the best anchors for a novel.

As I mentioned, the plot meanders for most of the book. Characters are introduced and have lengthy chapters dedicated to their point-of-view only to end with an irrelevant or complete lack of denouement. There’s a serial killer plot that goes no where. The town the story takes place in is featureless, which could be intentional, but like the intentionally bland characters, intent doesn’t make it any less boring. And then, and then, and then, after slogging through all this, the novel’s crux is revealed: WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED most definitely did happen, and what happened was some kind of mega-holocaust that almost entirely wiped out the jewish people. It turns out that Kevern and Ailinn are some of the very last descendents of the bare few survivors of WHAT HAPPENED. Not only that, they’ve only met due to some government agent’s scheming, and said agents have plans for them — make fruitful and reproduce, revive the jews. It’s an elaborate strategy to reinvigorate society, but altruism this is not.The plan is to return the jews to public consciousness to give people a target they can unify in hating once again.

High concept dystopian literature have clear themes, 1984 gave us Big Brother. Brave New World warned of consumption, escapism, technology. Even something like The Hunger Games elicits a clear and thoughtful point on entertainment and class.

J’s central dystopian thrust is this: society cannot function without xenophobia. Without some Other-group to hate, people become listless, beat their wives, seek pointless extramarital thrills. This is a weak thrust, but maybe defensible as part of a general philosophical notion people sometimes hold: that conflict is essential to human progress and happiness. But narrowing it down to hate is unconvincing. Especially in this world where society is bereft of basic happiness luxuries — technology, travel, history, literature, music, heirlooms, family, spirituality, identity, craft. Is hate really more valuable than self expression? Did no one think, maybe it’s the tyrannical censorship that is making people unhappy?

But what is much more unsettling and infuriating is that it is not any Others that people must hate. No, Jacobson’s horror-future exists, because it is specifically jews that the world needs to hate to function. The shadowy-government entities behind the novels plot have picked out Kevern and Ailinn to reproduce because they are some of the last living people descended from Jewish bloodlines. Bloodlines, a subject the books accepts uncritically and attributes great veracity.

Ailinn is dark-skinned; There’s a district in the Capital with Middle Eastern immigrants; Classism seems largely defunct; while the only mention of non-hetero sexuality is a father accusing his daughter of being a lesbian (negatively), there’s nothing else to indicate the world is particularly hostile to gays. All of the above peoples have traditionally served as scapegoats, objects of derision, someone to pointlessly hate or blame. But it is the Jews who need to be revived specifically to be hated to allow society to run again, for the happiness of all. It’s completely nonsensical in the narrative-built universe (and on real-planet-earth). It reminds me of the end of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead where the novel completely abandons all internal logic and characterization and cause-effect consistency just to make an ill-conceived point.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Don’t Even Think About It: Why Our Brains Are Wired To Ignore Climate Change by George Marshall

ddontevenThis book posits that people refuse, most often subconsciously, to accept climate change even when the science is solid. This is due to a series of coping mechanisms and mental partitioning that worked as an evolutionary advantage throughout humanity’s ascent up the food chain, but fail utterly when faced with a challenge that is uncertain, devastating, and (possibly) distant in its true impact. A few reasons:

  • People who experience serious environmental disaster and choose to rebuild almost always believe it will never happen (to them) again, and thus the people most affected by climate change actively refute it.
  • Climate change is incredibly uncertain — it’s hard to quantify which weather disasters are caused by climate change and which are merely your average terrible storm/flood/whatever.
  • The groups explaining the problem (scientists, environmentalists) have absolutely no concept of narrative spin, unlike their opponents. They think a constant barrage of information and graphs is the key to people’s hearts and minds.
  • The media rarely covers it, it’s somewhat of a political taboo, and people just don’t talk enough about it to keep it in the forefront of their brains.
  • The human brain is just not predisposed to giving up short term gains to avoid monstrous long-term losses.

It’s an interesting, depressing summary of the issue. It made me confront my own climate change sensibilities: General distaste and condescension towards anyone who refuses the science, and a willingness to work towards a solution. But what do I actually do about it? I own a car, but I rarely drive it unless I’m traveling some place distant. I bus, train or walk everywhere else, but I also live in a city with decent public transportation and couldn’t drive and park in downtown San Francisco regularly even if I wanted to. I’d still bus to work even if I could drive, but only so I could sit down and read, ha!

While the main thrust of the book was a great topic, the content is stretched quite thin. It seems like it would have worked better as long form journalism and not a full book. It’s repetitive.There are sections where Marshall reviews what he has said in a chapter (literally: “To sum up what I have said so far”) that I duly skipped. For a book that asks that climate change be given a compelling story that demands action, it’s kind of narratively lukewarm and passionless.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell

boneclocksWhen I was a kid, I liked books that took me on an adventure. Many did. They laid down a few rules, introduced our hero, and off we went, through twisting, perilous journeys and transformative loves. This stopped happening at some point. The YA novels became rote. Sure, there was adult novels containing adventure aplenty, but the essential, magical piece was missing.

I’m sure you can see where I’m going here: The Bone Clocks took me on that adventure, again.

It’s 1984 and fifteen year old Holly Sykes is running away from home for typical reasons — fights with mother, questionable decisions w/r/t much older boyfriend, general familial/societal misunderstanding. Like many teenagers, Holly is the only one who has ever felt these feelings before, ever. Mitchell shows care and empathy for adolescents even when we know they are being ridiculous. Holly’s plight ratchets up a few notches beyond mere teen angst when it’s revealed she had a series of odd, possibly supernatural events happen to her as a child (labeled Holly Sykes and the weird shit part 1, part 2, etc.) and the adumbral personages from this period of her life start surfacing in the present day (of 1984).

And as we turn the page on Holly’s final, self-shocking revelation, we see the date has changed from 1984 to 1991 and we are are in the first-person-I head of a completely different person, bereft of Holly’s resolution. This is how the book flows — time jumps and character swaps.

It’s not an uncommon technique in literature to leap large swathes of time in a single turn of the page. But, The Bone Clocks limits the chapters to such discreet, episodic moments in time. This, combined with the changing points of views, means that you’ll be embroiled in a character’s immediate problems and then swap twenty years to another character and come to see the first character’s turmoil as a distant blip, long resolved. It makes a single life seem really quite short. This helps set up the appeal of the villains — the soul sucking Anchorites that live forever and owe no small debt to Anne Rice’s vampires. The moral failings of living forever, especially when they require some of cost (‘decanting’ innocents!), have been affirmed as verboten ad nauseum. It takes a skilled writer to breath life into why immortality can be so appealing. The villains really are jerks though.

The physical design of the book itself is a continuation of the time theme. A clock in the top right of the page literally ticks down. It’s a fascinating mechanism and a sell for the singular experience of reading a physical book. I read this in paper but I recently bought an eReader and the comparison between the two has been on my mind of late.

David Mitchell, as always, is a superb writer of prose. He slips into the voice of each character and each time period, though there is a trademark, Mitchellian turn of phrase that remains regardless of the chapter. He’s the sort of writer who could write anything and I’d read it. I’d read his grocery lists, no joke.

The novel isn’t flawless. It’s long and the pacing isn’t entirely perfect. The fantastic and realist elements don’t always mesh as well as they could, especially when compared to Mitchell’s masterful Cloud Atlas. But these are minor detractors to an excellent book. So much so, I am reading non-fiction next to avoid being disappointed by the next novel I pick up.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Once Upon a Time : A Short History of Fairy Tale by Marina Warner

onceThis book was alright.

It poses a question of form: when a book is sort of middling, a bit boring at times but never quite bad, certainly not in any funny or remarkable way, how do you review it without affecting the same feelings in the reader of the review?

My solution: Keep it brief.

Once Upon a Time is an overview of the history of fairy tales — the major players, the major theories, the major events. From the early, sinister folktales and the men and women that recorded them, to the shift to Victorian children tales, their places in Freud and other psychoanalyst’s oeuvre, to their deep examination by 20th century feminists, and then their reclamation of darkness and adulthood in the literature and films of the present day*.

It is very general. I would call it shallow. It rarely delves. There’s a handful of interesting facts — for instance, Wilhelm Grimm ardently defended the violent lessons of fairy tales as necessary for children, while at the same time changing them to be as patronizing as possible to women and girls — but not enough to carry the book. The author is clearly passionate about the topic, but the passion does not translate to and infuse the text.

And that is easily all it takes to move a non-fiction book from engrossing and memorable to serviceable.

*I give this book points for mentioning  Blancanieves, a seriously fantastic film retelling Snow White. It reimagines without diluting.

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Faber

bookofstrangenewthingsPeter Leigh, an English preacher, travels billions of miles from Earth to the newfound desert planet, Oasis. His mission: to bring the word of Christ to the alien inhabitants. Yet he is not beset by your average challenges for missionaries — mistrust, lack of communication, customs. Indeed, the oasans are incredibly receptive to the Bible, which they call The Book of Strange New Things.

Meanwhile, Peter’s wife Bea is sending letters describing increasing worldwide catastrophe occurring back on Earth…

This book is fantastic. I was invested in Peter, the eminently hopeful, kind of weak, kind of bumbling protagonist, even while groaning through his boneheaded mistakes (generally involving communication with his wife). I loved the people of Oasis, both its native inhabitants and its hodgepodge group of damaged human immigrants. The people are colorful, as they should be. It’s a baldy science-fiction book that will be marketed as straight literature or ‘genre-defying’. I guess the genre defying part is smart character study and stellar prose. Which reinforces exclusion of sci-fi as unserious, but whatever.

Faber’s sentence-level craft is superb. His character work subtly reveals much without smashing you over the head — he understands the difference between the main point-of-view character’s perception of another character, and how that character actually is. The plot is smooth, moving between nail-biting tension and balmy contemplation. There was a point in the book where I knew something bad had happened to Peter’s wife, and as a careful reader, I had a good idea of what had happened — I read a lot of books and watch a lot of movies, and I’m usually proven right — but no, Faber was in complete control and knew what I was thinking and actually it was a different bad thing that was set up just as well. The dialogue sounds like real people. The epistolary relationship between Peter and Bea reads like a separated couple unused to separation (“The cat misses you!”) and not like the astounding wordsmithery that often permeates letter-correspondence in novels. OK, at least Possession had the excuse that the letter-writers were poets. Peter and Bea’s letters are warm, chilling, tense, not boring as they might have been in lesser hands.

The planet of Oasis, bland at outside appearance, is richly described. It’s very easy and comfortable to feel like you’re there, amidst the green swirling rain and flat horizon. The fleshy-headed, berobed natives, who I feel guilty calling ‘aliens’ even for the purpose of this review (instead of what they are: people), go from strange and off-putting to almost unbearably endearing. They fulfill their sci-fi ascribed role as a foil for humans, while remaining their own distinct entity, who will be living amongst the stars on faraway Oasis long after the book is closed.

It’s rare in science fiction, indeed rare in anything but Christian fiction, that a book intelligently integrates faith into its narrative. Typically religion is a boogeyman or otherwise The Answer To All Things. Peter is devout, but not hardline in his beliefs. The Bible is open to interpretation. Other beliefs should be respected. The novel itself does not lend final credence or doubt to religion, though it does leave me wishing God were real, if not for humans, at least for the oasan’s sake. Instead, it is concerned with major Christian tenets that concern everyone. Notions of mercy, and forgiveness, and redemption. Regardless of faith, as humans we must realize people are capable of terrible, cruel things and just as capable of turning their life around and doing wonderful and compassionate things. The question is how to live with these people, how to forgive or understand them, or conversely how to live with yourself if you are one. God is an answer, but not the only one. And even in the absence of God, it’s worth investigating why singing Amazing Grace in unison is powerful.

(Thanks to Netgalley and Crown Publishing for hooking me up! This advanced-reader-copy thing is working out for me lately.)

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

the mirror empireLet me explain.

The players

We have…

The incestuous tribal peace-lovers. Otherwise known as Dhai. The majority of the main characters are Dhai, though much of the story happens elsewhere. The have big, polyamorous family structures, their wizards are sworn to pacifism, and they seem to be enslaved anywhere else not-Dhai. While seeming egalitarian, they practice hereditary rule and draconian rule enforcement.

The militaristic kill all men fascists. Otherwise known as Dorinah. Martial woman who fight and enslave for kicks and who happen to kill all the men they don’t need for breed/status-marriages, invoking their own version of Darwinism/(u)natural selection by killing off all but the smaller, pretty ones. I’m not sure what their wizards do. Act as deus ex machina maybe.

The empire that lives in the cold and acts like assholes for no clear reason (maybe they’re cold). Otherwise known as Saiduan. They’re very stern and cold (in demeanor!) and harsh, just like… the wintry land they inhabit. Their wizards are assassins.

Unlike the final version, the advance copy of this book is missing a map. For most of the novel, I was picturing these three countries as amorphous island blobs floating near each other. Turns out, this is not the case.

 

The game

The good peoples above are busy being their own nationalistic-defined selves when Saiduan (cold-assholes) are invaded by mysterious enemies dropping out of rifts in the sky. Said enemies happen to look just like the Dhai (tribal-incest). Turns out there are other worlds, and in one world in particular, a few decisions made differently were all it took for the pacifism-loving Dhai to become terrible imperialistic conquerors.

Other worlds. Mirror worlds. Mirror Empires. The gates between worlds have rules associated with them; you cannot cross over to a world if your other-world-self still lives, and they are difficult to open. Indeed, they can snap shut and slice you right in half and this will not be the only instance you are reminded of The Wheel of Time series, even if you got bored halfway through it. Like 10 years ago.

 

The good

This book moves quickly. It’s well paced. Every chapter is a contained moment of action that moves the plot along and sets up the next piece. While not essential in all works (I do love a slow burn), this is essential for The Mirror Empire, for reasons mentioned below in ‘The bad’. Much is communicated with few words and the tell-tale sluggishness and over description of most epic fantasy is absent. It’s almost baffling when a room or scene is described in detail — I’d scrutinize the wall texture for plot significance.

These traits are encapsulated in The Mirror Empire’s standout character, a Dorinah (KAM-fascists) general named Zezili. Zezili, in addition to being a spousal abuser and all-around curmudgeonly asshole, spends much of the book committing genocide on slave camps scattered across her country. Yet, you can’t help but want her to succeed.

(at halting the villains, not genocide)

She can get away with mass murder, because in The Mirror Empire, life is cheap. Murder, genocide, slavery are casually mentioned, rarely described. A character having mud and blood on her boots is an expository tell that a whole lot of people just died. While the numbers of people in any given scene are small, the amount that casually get offed is out-of-scale enormous. History is laden with genocide. There’s a disproportionate amount of slaves. Sometimes people are mentioned as dying offhand, and I’m not even sure what was around to kill them. It may be that this was supposed to point out the cheapness of life in the real world, the commonplace of genocide, how rote killing becomes when it’s all you know. But it doesn’t. Instead, it feels more like a Franz Kafka short where no one reacts as you’d expect them to. Murder is just totally fine in Mirrorempireland. Normal, even.

It works.

 
The bad

The genericism.

Despite the walking trees and killer plant life that suffuse the world, despite the mirror worlds and wacky magic, despite the avoidance of traditional-patriarchal-conservative structures, this still feels like just another fantasy world. Dhai has five genders but I have no idea what any of them mean — they seem pretty average fantasy-tribal-religious society. The cultures and people just don’t feel solid, or believable. They’re groups of traits.

This extends to the characters and language. You have reluctant man with small concerns and tragic past thrust into Leader of the People. Youth searching for a lost parent and coming of age (+superpowers). There’s a bunch of generic martial badasses. And while I’m utterly opposed to the thesis of Ursula LeGuin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie — that fantasy requires some sort of mythic-grandiose language — it actually kind of applies here. The language, and especially the dialogue of The Mirror Empire is incredibly modern. Why are the people of this killer-tree, super magic, casual murder, pre-industrial, multivalent gender planet speaking like Americans in 2014?

 
P.S. Fiction and blog writers alike, I hate when you overuse the word ‘Well’ to start a sentence.

 
The wizards (and a refusal to adhere to a Serge Leone ascribed trichotomy)

In this world, some kind of moon-like satellite things rise and fall every few years. These satellites give the magic-users of the world their powers. It’s a pretty cool concept. Someone with their satellite in power in their early-mid teens may be a more confident youth and this will alter their life beyond just mastering powerful magic. And no doubt have a second effect once their power begins to wane. One place fantasy often fails is when you ask the question, ‘why don’t wizards rule the world?’ This books fails here too. The magic users are super powerful; they can heal almost anything, blow shit up en masse, etc. It’s not a major flaw but it’s there.

The actual magic system is weaving patterns and speaking litanies and the biggest conjuror of Wheel of Time memories. You have to grasp the magic source, maintain concentration etc. This wasn’t a negative. It made me nostalgic. I felt this often during The Mirror Empire and it is not merely because I’ve started reading more fantasy again after abstaining for years. Hurley conceived of this originally as a teenager and it feels like that. There are some magic assassins that have swords attached to their arms that glow and literally eat souls. Been there, wrote that, killed that World of Warcraft boss. In fact, I felt like I was in a video game often. Mass Effect in particular.

 
This review is all over the place. Sorry. Suffice to say: I liked it. I’ll read the next.

I requested this book from Netgalley as I’m a fan of Kameron Hurley’s blog. Then I failed to download it in the required time. The publisher hooked me up anyway. Thanks Angry Robot!

Posted in Books | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment