With its hundredth anniversary just last month, Titanic was all over the media, much to my dad’s chagrin. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems so...moreWith its hundredth anniversary just last month, Titanic was all over the media, much to my dad’s chagrin. He doesn’t understand why everyone seems so fascinated by Titanic (the ship or the James Cameron movie). I personally don’t care much for the movie, but I can see why the ship has captured so many imaginations. It was a huge testament to human ingenuity—and hubris. Its sinking was a monumental event in the early twentieth century. Not only was the loss of life considerable—and perhaps preventable, had the ship been equipped with enough lifeboats—but the psychological toll for the survivors must have been particularly harrowing.
Of course, no matter how awful the situation, it could always get worse. You could get rescued by a ship unwittingly transporting vampires.
Now, I don’t quite have Titanic fever, and vampires aren’t my favourite beast in the mythological stable. So I probably wouldn’t have picked up this book if it weren’t for my Angry Robot subscription. But I did, and it made for an interesting if unremarkable read. Carpathia has all the makings of a good book, but it’s missing a spark to elevate it above that.
Our protagonists survive the sinking of the Titanic only to discover that the ship that rescued them—the Carpathia—happens to be infested with vampires trying to get back to the Old Country. Some of the vampires see the Titanic disaster as an opportunity for a free meal, but they risk exposure, which the vampire leader does not condone. Soon enough, Quin, Abe, and Lucy find themselves hunting, staking, and battling vampires in a fight for survival just when they thought they were saved.
Matt Forbeck’s vampires are old-school, Stoker-esque creatures of the night. All the classic powers from Dracula: transformation into mist or into a bat, hypnosis, vulnerability to wooden stakes and sunlight and fire, and even sleeping in a coffin filled with dirt from one’s homeland; these are the hallmarks of a vampire in Carpathia. Indeed, the connection to Stoker goes even deeper, as the last names (Harker, Holmwood, and Seward) hint at from the beginning. To be honest, since I haven’t read Dracula, this connection didn’t do a lot for me. However, I appreciate that Forbeck’s vampires don’t sparkle and, you know, are actually kind of like how vampires should be.
Forbeck manages his protagonists’ transformation from sceptics to believers in a very natural way. After witnessing one vampire disposing of a body—at sea, this is as simple as throwing it overboard—Lucy and Quin alert the captain to the presence of a murderer on board. Eventually, they stumble into a cabin that appears to be the scene of some horrific crime. One of the vampires attacks Abe, but thanks to Quin’s quick action, he survives. This leads them to gathering the doctor as an ally, and as the three of them become reconciled to the existence of vampires, they have to decide how to investigate the threat to themselves and to the ship.
Likewise, we get some good characterization from the vampires too. They are unquestionably monstrous, motivated by a bloodlust and inflated by a sense of immortality and power. Yet they are cunning, and their instinct for self-preservation usually wins out over the desire to feed. The lead vampire, Dushko, is a savvy businessman who wants to lead his people back to the relative safety of the Old World. To do this, he knows they need to keep a low profile on board this ship, where the cramped conditions make them vulnerable if discovered (as we eventually see). But Dushko, the old and experienced vampire, is not the only one with opinions about how the vampires should live. Brody Murtagh would rather start a war with the humans and show them their place in the food chain. This point of contention proves dangerous—and fatal—as the book goes on.
Despite this careful cocktail of conflict, however, I had trouble seeing the point of the book for the first half of it. So Quin, Abe, and Lucy survive the sinking of the Titanic, and there are vampires on board the Carpathia. So … what? It took too long for us to go from rescue to the discovery of the vampires, and my interest began to flag. This problem arises again later in the book, after the vampires are no longer a secret and all hell breaks loose. Forbeck’s quite good at the set-up, but once he has set everything in motion, it all seems to move erratically and without any sense of a bigger picture. As much as I enjoyed individual moments in the book, it never really gave me a unified sense of satisfaction.
Also, I hated the love triangle among our three protagonists. I knew from the moment the two men and their woman companion were introduced that this would be a love triangle kind of book. Of course, I don’t object to love triangles per se—when used creatively and appropriately they’re just as interesting as any other trope. But the “I love her but she only has eyes for my best friend, so I will stay strong and silent” trope is just so overdone. To be fair to Forbeck, Quin’s very real brush with death galvanizes him to confess his love to Lucy. But that’s not enough. Combined with the mortal peril Abe suffers during the vampire attack and the eventual resolution of the love triangle, this relationship just felt like too much of a cliché.
Much like my experience with Amortals, I was initially going to give Carpathia two stars. It’s a good book, just not really one that piques my interest. For that reason, I began to reconsider my evaluation and wonder if three stars would be more appropriate. But unlike Amortals, Carpathia doesn’t leave me with any larger thematic concerns. It is a tasty blend of action, horror, and thriller, but beyond the story there isn’t much here. If you’re fascinated by fiction about the sinking of the Titanic or want to read a book with some Stoker-esque vampires, then Carpathia might work well from you. Just don’t expect anything more than what’s exactly on the box.
Have you made a deal with the devil? Worried about how your soul will be conveyed to its eternal torment upon the expiry of that deal? Not sure you ca...moreHave you made a deal with the devil? Worried about how your soul will be conveyed to its eternal torment upon the expiry of that deal? Not sure you can trust the Grim Reaper with so important a task? Never fear: the Collectors are here! And they are going to take you straight to Hell.
Chris F. Holm mashes up the concept of the damned, human soul collector with the tradition of noir pulp fiction. Sam Thornton hops from body to body, preferring to possess dead ones, all the better for maintaining his tenuous link to his humanity. He travels across the world collecting the souls of the damned at the behest of his handler, the dangerous and sexy Lilith (yes, that Lilith). But when Sam tries to collect the soul of a 17-year-old who committed triple homicide on her family, he gets serious backlash. With no idea why Kate’s soul is pure, Sam nevertheless takes her on the run and becomes a fugitive from both Heaven and Hell while he tries to sort things out.
Holm wastes no time propelling us into the main part of the story. We get a brief prologue that introduces us to the nature of Sam’s job, and then he’s off to collect Kate’s soul—a task at which he fails miserably. He finds himself in a catch-22, because failing to collect a soul is an act of rebellion that might trigger Judgement Day … yet collecting an innocent soul is also a J-Day trigger. So what’s a poor collector supposed to do?
Sam’s answer is “run like Hell” for the entire book. This gets kind of old, fast, especially when he repeatedly attempts to stash Kate somewhere “for her safety”, she refuses, and then they end up getting attacked. While I suppose this structure is reassuring, it is also very formulaic. This is the result of Dead Harvest’s central problem: namely, the stakes are the same for the entire book.
By dropping the apocalypse on us at the beginning of the book, Holm leaves the tension with nowhere to go but down. With each demon Sam encounters encouraging him to collect Kate’s soul, with each close scrape with the cops, Holm’s action-oriented writing entertains. But there is little question that, by the end of the story, Sam is going to prevail. There’s no sense that he’ll have to sacrifice—I mean, what has he got to lose? Aside from Sam, and maybe Kate, none of the other characters acquire more than one or two dimensions.
Flashbacks reveal how Sam became a collector, how a demon dragged him into the sordid business back in the 1930s. Although I wasn’t a fan of how Holm scattered these throughout the book, I’m glad they are there; I liked learning more about Sam’s backstory. That being said, I might prefer reading that novel instead of Dead Harvest.
This is a book where I really like the concept but have so many reservations about the structure and content … there are plenty of ways I can think of to improve it. I’d like to see a larger, more dynamic cast of characters. I wouldn’t mind more exploration of the mythos Holm has created for his angels and demons. Surely in his several decades of collecting Sam would have found more informants than a few piddly demons!
After some more reflection, above all else, what would have clinched Dead Harvest for me would be more meaningful exploration of Sam’s existential crisis. Holm seems to do his best to hammer home the point that it is only a matter of when, not if Sam becomes as soulless and deranged as the other Collector, Bishop. And this is the most fascinating facet of the mythos Holm is creating: how do Collectors deal with their slow descent into Hell? Do they ever meet up to compare notes? Again, Holm spends more time in “thriller” mode than he does in more meditative modes, and this makes for a much less satisfying story.
If, unlike me, you have more experience reading noir fiction, there’s a chance you’ll enjoy this book more than I did. For me, however, Dead Harvest was a hollow read.
Our capacity for language is one of the attributes often cited as what makes humans so distinct from other animals. It’s a controversial distinction,...moreOur capacity for language is one of the attributes often cited as what makes humans so distinct from other animals. It’s a controversial distinction, because we’ve observed other species communicate in very interesting and effective ways: whales sing, dolphins whistle, birds do whatever it is they do to switch places while in formation. Parrots, of course, can be trained to mimic human speech! But there’s a difference between replicating instinctual sounds with fixed meanings and being able to learn language—to use it in innovative ways. When we look to other species who might possess this capability, we naturally turn to one of our closest relatives: chimpanzees.
There are many famous cases of attempts to teach primates signs or some other type of “language”: Koko, Washoe, Nim. The last has received recent publicity in the form of a documentary, Project Nim, and Washoe and Nim quite resemble Zan, the fictional cross-fostered chimp in Half Brother. Although it seems evident that Kenneth Oppel researched these projects, and others like them, for this book, it would have been interesting to hear how they inspired him in his own words. I guess afterwords or author’s notes aren’t all that common in young adult fiction (but maybe they should be).
I’m reading this book because my associate teacher in my second practicum is reading it to her Grade 8 class. I picked it up the week before my practicum, because it seemed like the thing to do. Oppel has been around since I was a kid—I’m pretty sure I read at least Silverwing—but I never quite became a “fan” of him. I skipped a huge chunk of YA fiction when I was that age as I jumped right up to more sophisticated stories—mysteries and then, in Grades 7 and 8, fantasy and science fiction. Now, as I prepare to teach those grades, I’m making a conscious effort to look out for interesting young adult fiction. Not only will it help me understand the mindset of my charges, but it will give me some practical recommendations if my students ever ask me what to read.
I ended up enjoying Half Brother a lot more than I expected—though why that’s so is beyond me, because I really like chimpanzees. If there’s one thing I love about David Brin’s Uplift series, it’s the possibility of letting chimps talk. Sure, they’re sexually rapacious and somewhat brutal … but they’re also so fascinating. Look into those deep eyes and see how much they perceive, how much they understand, how much they can empathize … I don’t know if words like sentient or sapient are accurate, but there’s something going on there. Of course, experiments trying to narrow that something down inevitable run into ethical issues.
Ethics plays a role in Half Brother, as does a slew of other motifs. This is a very rich novel in terms of potential for discussion with a class. One can discuss the ethics of animal testing: should we experiment on chimps? What about medical testing on animals? Cosmetics testing? Where do we draw the lines? And then we can go deeper: the protagonist, Ben, repeatedly comments that Zan isn’t human, but he is a person. So that raises the question of what personhood is, if not humanity. What does it mean to be a person? Fifty or sixty years ago, we were having those discussions about people who weren’t white. A century ago we were having them about people who weren’t male. Now we’re having them about people who aren’t necessarily our own species. The times, they change, but the conversations stay the same.
Then there’s Ben. The fact that he shares my name certainly helps. As the book opens he is about start Grade 8, and he finishes Grade 9 before the book’s end. For the most part, Oppel does an excellent job portraying Ben as a genuine 13-year-old boy. The vocabulary and syntax are accurate, and the ways Ben conceptualizes and explains events reflect the thinking of someone just on that cusp of adolescence. And he has a crush! Oppel sets up parallels between Ben’s interactions with Zan (Project Zan) and his attempts to get closer to Jennifer Godwin (Project Jennifer). It’s cute and adorable, and I’m sure that actual Grade 8s in my class find it icky and weird. (Occasionally, Oppel stretches the credibility of what he has Ben write—I doubt a 13-year-old boy would describe his crush as “luscious”.) I’m kind of interested to see what the girls think of how Ben is acting!
One curious note: this book seems to be set sometime before 1977. According to Wikipedia, this is when Canada switched its speed limit signs to kilometres per hour—early in the book Ben mentions a sign in miles per hour, which really jumped out at me. Aside from that incident and the frequent mention of records and record stores (at first I just thought these kids were all unspeakably retro), Oppel never makes it obvious that this book is set in the near past; there are few enough indications of the timeline. To be honest, I’m not sure why he chose this. I have some guesses. Perhaps he wanted to be closer to the era when the real chimp language experiments were running. Perhaps he needed an environment where a teenager wouldn’t have access to the Internet or to a cell phone. I’m not sure.
For a book with a such a simple and, yeah, predictable narrative, there’s quite a bit going on in terms of story. Ben gets to know Zan and starts thinking about the ethics of what his father is doing. This leads to issues with his dad, particularly when the project begins foundering and his dad makes a number of questionable decisions related to Zan’s wellbeing and future. Moreover, Ben has trouble getting the marks necessary to satisfy his father, who feels Ben merely needs to try harder. Oppel is careful to portray Ben as a kid who does try hard (mostly) but happens not to be so hot at academics. He struggles even more as he attempts to find his social position at a new, private school. All of these sub-plots are detailed and fine-tuned in such a way that they’re ripe for discussion, but they never subsume the main story about a boy and his chimpanzee.
I admit, I teared up at the ending. It’s somewhat contrived, but that doesn’t reduce its power. Oppel gives us a send-off carefully calibrated to be bittersweet, “happy” in some ways but also heartbreaking in others. Half Brother doesn’t take half measures in this regard: everything is either an emotional high or an emotional low, and while it can feel exhausting at times, I also think it keeps the book interesting. There’s a volatility to the story that probably works well to hold the attention of a younger audience. At the same time, as I describe above, Oppel does not condescend to his audience at all. The issues are real and important, and the language he uses is authentic. In a world were certain popular young adult fiction has protagonists who do nothing but swoon over competing mythological boyfriends and faint during all the interesting scenes (I name no names), I’m happy there are far superior alternatives.
The Internet isn’t for porn, silly human. The Internet is for spam! It’s an interesting spin on a truism of our times.
We are seeing the first reported...moreThe Internet isn’t for porn, silly human. The Internet is for spam! It’s an interesting spin on a truism of our times.
We are seeing the first reported smartphone botnet. We are seeing the future. Policing of the future isn’t going to be about Robocop busting drug dealers and car thieves on the street of Detroit. Automated drones might be part of the package, but there will still be boots on the ground—just heavily assisted by highly-networked, algorithm-boosted technology. Policing is no longer about the heart and the gut, and as Liz Kavanaugh explains in Rule 34, the days of the Sherlock Holmes or Inspector Rebus are long gone. Criminals are, as always, leveraging the latest in technology as they develop newer, more lucrative ways to make money.
Rule 34 is a look at, to borrow Charles Stross’ nomenclature, Criminality 2.0: crime for the networked age. Part police procedural, part philosophical rumination on the Singularity bubble, Rule 34 is a heady cocktail of near-future speculation and present-day description of the challenges to law enforcement, national sovereignty, and daily life posed by all those thousands of networked devices clamouring for our attention. It’s set five years after Halting State—but it only involves two of the other book’s minor characters, so feel free to read this without reading the other one. Indeed, I liked Rule 34 better.
Halting State and Rule 34 are both narrated in the second person. This is unusual, to say the least, and I know it frustrates many readers. I didn’t examine it all that much when I reviewed Halting State, except to say that I didn’t notice it after the first few pages. Well I noticed it more in this book, because occasionally Stross would slip into the first person for a chapter or two—and that had to be deliberate. Indeed, the second-person narration has an interesting reason that makes sense by the end of the book, though I don’t want to spoil it. Also, second person is a nice compromise between the objectivity of limited-omniscient third person and the unreliability of first person. It has that same first-person intimacy but comes without the spectre of deception attached.
And I don’t even think that the narrative tense is what makes Rule 34 difficult to read for some. I think it’s the dialect. Not the Scottish dialect, though there is that: the 2020s dialect. It hit me about halfway through the book, and after that everything became easier to read. Stross is writing using the idiom of the time. To explain, consider how we speak today compared with ten, twenty, fifty years ago. How common now is it to talk about tweeting, texting, IMing, Googling, Facebooking, etc.? How used are we to slinging the verbiage of the iPhone, the Android, the 3G and LTE and other abbreviations of our day? Someone from the 1950s, 1970s, or even the 1990s might have a hard time penetrating this obscure dialect. That’s what Stross is doing here: he’s narrating as if to an audience where all this technology, like CopSpace and pads that pull VMs down from the cloud, is normal. It’s part of everyday life, as surely as your coffeemaker or your refridgerator is part of yours. When technology becomes a common tool instead of a fancy new toy, when it becomes commonplace and part of the common conversation, we cease thinking about how weird we might sound to the uninitiated. Stross doesn’t bother infodumping much on us, but instead has us assimilate by exposure.
I like that Stross has created such a neat, self-contained vision of the near future. The idea is not to be accurate, of course, but to look at what this extrapolation says about our present day. How does extending current trends reflect what we are doing now? All authors have their bailiwicks and hang-ups, and Stross in particular loves to write about artificial intelligence. But like any good writer, his relationship with these ideas continues to evolve. He has written in Singularity-addled universes, but now he is looking at futures where the Singularity hasn’t happened and probably will never happen (though in this case, I think it’s far more ambiguous than Dr. MacDonald claims in his lecture to Liz). Rule 34 is definitely about artificial intelligence, but it’s about the understated, what we might consider more rudimentary artificial intelligence that often gets ignored in favour of the more sensational, conscious AIs of blockbuster notoriety. (That being said, I think ATHENA has more in common with SkyNet than it does some of the more human-like, personality-driven AIs we see these days.)
The plot of Rule 34 is convoluted and driven by coincidence—and that’s probably an understatement. There is a reason for all the coincidence that gradually becomes apparent; while that wasn’t quite enough to quash my unease with the serendipity of this story, it was sufficient to sustain my satisfaction overall. Allow me to serve as an example, however, and attest that one does not need the language of derivatives and credit default swaps encoded in one’s genes to enjoy this book. I won’t claim to have followed every twist and turn of the various machinations and counter-machinations at work. But the shifting perspectives and the ongoing investigation help illuminate, if not explain, the goings-on of the story.
I like most of the characters (if “like” is the right word here). I like that Liz is bitter about being passed over for promotion but still professional enough to work with a rival and caring enough to help an ex-girlfriend in trouble. I like that she puts aside her past problems with Kemal so they team up here—Kemal gets a more sympathetic portrayal in this book. Anwar has to be my favourite, just because he’s so hapless at everything he touches. He gets in way over his head and thinks no one will notice, when he turns out to be one of the fulcra around which the plot pivots. To say that I “like” the Toymaker would definitely be inaccurate, but I do like how Stross explores his psychology and motivation: he is more than a villain or a minion, less than a mastermind.
Rule 34 throws up a lot of hurdles that could reduce one’s enjoyment: second-person narration, idiomatic diction, and complicated plot. These challenges are also the source of its success. It’s a book, I guess, where its flaws (such as they may be perceived) are also strengths, given the right type of reader—proof, again, that literature is eternally subjective because humans are so diverse. If you’re interested in looking at what we might have made of society, policing, and the Web in ten years—as opposed to the ten thousand of some books about AI—then give Rule 34 a try.
I love fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It seems an era particularly rich in epic, empire-spanning even...moreNow this is how you write a novel!
I love fiction set in Tudor and Elizabethan England. It seems an era particularly rich in epic, empire-spanning events and internal religious and royal conflict. If an author can make historical figures come alive and explore the emotions and motivations that might have been involved in these intrigues, the resultant novel can be an intense, interesting invocation of history. This era is also a rich source of inspiration for historical fantasy, and sometimes even alternative history. What if Henry VIII hadn’t killed Anne Boleyn? What if he had lived to take a seventh wife? Or what if, as Anne Lyle posits here, Elizabeth I did not remind the virgin queen, but instead married Robert Dudley and bore him princes? And what if, upon expanding into the New World, European explorers encountered more than just the indigenous human inhabitants? They found the Skraylings, non-human beings steeped in mysterious traditions and magic.
The Alchemist of Souls falls into the category I like to call, “What a Great Read.” It’s not a book that is going to keep me up at night pondering its themes and subtext. But it’s far more than just a competent or compelling narrative. Rather, Anne Lyle has achieved something in between the two, and that’s definitely cause for celebration. I enjoyed the few hours I spent with Maliverny Catlyn and Coby Hendricks, and Lyle’s alternative Elizabethan England is a fascinating setting without becoming overbearing or over-the-top.
Mal Catlyn has seen better days. Down his luck, in debt, suddenly he becomes appointed the bodyguard to a Skrayling ambassador. There are deeper reasons for this, which we learn later, but the upshot is that Mal is caught between several masters. He is working for Walsingham, who of course is trying to control everything. He is working for Leland, the Queen’s man in this matter, and theoretically Mal’s direct superior. But mostly he becomes loyal to Kiiren, the young Skrayling ambassador whom he is assigned to protect. Mal overcomes his initial prejudice and distrust of the Skraylings and comes to consider Kiiren a kind of friend—that is, until a close encounter with Skrayling magic and the abduction of his insane brother threatens Mal’s relationship with Kiiren, as well as Mal’s life.
The other half of the book follows Coby, short for Jacob, an adolescent member of an acting troupe. Except she’s a boy (which isn’t a spoiler, because we learn it when we first meet her). As the tireman for Suffolk’s Men, Coby works on the costumes for the troupe. She finds it easier to live as a boy rather than endure the attention that would fall upon her as a parent-less girl. The threat of discovery looms over Coby at every corner, but Lyle never makes it melodramatic. Rather, she plays upon the ambiguous attitudes towards sexuality and sexual orientation among the Elizabethan classes. Coby falls hard for Mal after he teaches her how to fight in return for lessons from her on Skrayling tradetalk. He notices the attraction, but of course he sees it through the lens of Coby’s apparent masculine gender performance and lets Coby down gently. Later in the book, another man who has relations with men assumes it is Coby’s attraction to Mal that makes her so anxious to find and rescue him from the clutches of an adversary.
This kind of play on mistaken identity or misinterpreted relationships and sexuality is nice to see, particularly in a book set in the time of Shakespeare, who was such a master of it. I won’t pretend to any kind of expertise in this area, so rather than saying that Lyle’s portrayal of sexuality and gender lends the book authenticity, I’ll say that it at least demonstrates a keen awareness that ideas about gender in Elizabethan England were very different from ideas about gender now. So many writers of historical fiction nail the events, dates, names, even clothing, but their men act like 20th- or 21st-century men, and their women act like 20th- or 21st-century women. Lyle’s characters have the prejudices and pre-conceptions of 16th-century Europeans, something that becomes all the more obvious when they deal with the Skraylings.
The principal conflict in The Alchemist of Souls concerns one of the many secrets the Skraylings have yet to reveal to humans: they reincarnate. I won’t go into more detail so I don’t have to attach a spoiler warning. Suffice it to say that Mal and his twin brother play an important role in a gambit between Kiiren and another important Skrayling. In the balance lies not only Mal’s life but the alliance between the Skraylings and England against the staunchly-Catholic French and Spain. Lyle includes both personal and very big-picture stakes in the conflict.
Indeed, in general I am impressed not just with the story but with how tightly written this book is. It’s easy to turn historical fiction into sprawling epics, with descriptions and careful flashbacks and long-winded explanations of genealogies and precedents. Lyle manages to establish a lot with very little in the way of exposition. We quickly learn that Mal is the son of a diplomat who married an heiress from the French court. This gives him a half-French, secret Catholic heritage he has to hide, lest it bring him under suspicion. (Lyle drops a few more hints throughout the book that Mal will eventually renew his connection to France in the service of Walsingham’s spy corps, but I assume that will be another book.) Similarly, we learn about Coby’s background and former life in the Netherlands in about a single conversation between her and Mal. No lengthy flashbacks here, and only a few disjointed dream sequences!
I’m not quite as sold on the way Lyle portrays the magical and supernatural in The Alchemist of Souls. Magic doesn’t play an overt role until the last part of the book, and then there’s quite a bit of it, and it can be a little confusing to try to work out what’s going on, especially during the climax. In the end, all becomes clear once the dust settles. But this is an exception to the otherwise skillful use of action and suspense that makes this book so satisfying to read.
This is definitely a refreshing take on Elizabethan England, and one that I will be happy to follow as a series. The addition of the Skraylings into the political and religious fray between England and the Continent can only deepen the amount of carnage and intrigue that will be forthcoming. I can’t wait to see what Mal gets up to next. But far from serving merely to set up any sequels, The Alchemist of Souls is a fine novel that stands alone. It’s entertaining and action-oriented, but with a keen sense of history, neat new supernatural allies and enemies, and worthy characters to cheer (or boo).
So you solved Hell’s labour problems, foiled a fake kidnapping plot, and have successfully become a crimefighting superhero with the help of a demon....moreSo you solved Hell’s labour problems, foiled a fake kidnapping plot, and have successfully become a crimefighting superhero with the help of a demon. Oh, and you got the girl! What’s next? Try stopping your mother’s new lover from bringing about the end of the world (and the start of a new one) by writing the next draft of the book that is our lives! Costume Not Included hews pretty closely to its predecessor, The Damned Busters, but benefits from tighter pacing and much more interesting character development. As Chesney Arnstruther and his girlfriend, Melda, contemplate how to stop the world from ending, the righteous Lieutenant Denby and his superiors are closing in on the mysterious Actionary. Oh, and Satan is involved.
I was fairly ambivalent towards The Damned Busters. To be honest, Costume Not Included does very little to improve my opinion of the series. It shares many flaws with the first book. Notably, the opening section is slow and dull, with a lot of exposition covering the developments of the first book. While I understand that Matthew Hughes needs to bring new readers up to speed, there must have been better ways to integrate this information. Likewise, a great deal of the plot developments in this book occur as a result of pages of intensive dialogue between characters.
These structural critiques aside, I did enjoy this sequel more than the first book. Hughes’ writing is more comfortable now that I don’t have to spend so much time getting to know Chesney (whom I still don’t like that much). I enjoyed reading his relationship with Melda, and how that is affecting his relationship with his mother. I enjoyed his conversations with Joshua/Jesus about being a prophet and the effects that has on ordinary people. And, once again, he stands up to Satan and does an end run around the Infernal Prince’s gambit. Bravo.
Hughes also takes a gamble when it comes to the antagonist. In the first book, he gave us Nat Blowdell as a clear bad guy, complete with the climactic confrontation in Hell. Here, the conflict is subtler. Billy Lee Hardacre, labour lawyer turned televangelist, is still exulting over confirmation of his pet theory that the world is a book being written by God to figure out good and evil. He’s overdosing on the pride pills, and the angel helping him work on a new gospel (the Book of Chesney) isn’t helping in that respect. When Chesney refuses to be a prophet—but finds a suitable substitute—Billy Lee’s fascination slips into obsession.
Billy Lee’s descent from ally to antagonist is the most fascinating thing about Costume Not Included. I loved watching him justify manipulating and lying for the greater good. He is someone who genuinely believes he is doing the Lord’s work, and hence what he is doing is acceptable; the possibility that bringing about the end of the world could all be a Satanic plot never occurs to him! Meanwhile, the actuary who has demonic superpowers is actually pretty grounded.
Another rising star of this series is Lieutenant (now Captain) Denby. Ordered by his corrupt superiors to expose the Actionary however possible, Denby gets pretty close to uncovering the truth. I’m dissatisfied by how easily Denby seems to develop the time travel theory—Hughes doesn’t spend enough time fleshing out Denby’s character for me to gauge how realistic his reaction is, but my mental picture of Denby at that point didn’t seem consistent with this Denby who believes in time travel. But, what can you do? I did enjoy the detente between Denby and Chesney that resulted in their tenuous alliance.
Costume Not Included plays off the best and the worst of The Damned Busters, but I would say it’s a definite improvement. I can’t quite get excited enough to recommend or hype this book. The premise is cool, and the characters and story are competently done, but there isn’t something I can point to and say, “That! That is why you need to read this book.” Without that essential spark, Costume Not Included joins all the other barely-memorable but enjoyable books I’ve read over the years, doomed to be forgotten until I dust off this review and re-read it prior to reading the next one. And I will read the next one, which is something!
I ended last year, and started this one, by discovering a great new writer of science fiction. In Reality 36, Guy Haley combines smartass private inv...moreI ended last year, and started this one, by discovering a great new writer of science fiction. In Reality 36, Guy Haley combines smartass private investigators with artificial intelligence, creating a truly entertaining posthuman thriller. There was just one problem.
It ended on a cliffhanger.
Fortunately, by the time I got around to reading the book, its sequel’s release date was fast approaching. So I was eagerly awaiting this month’s subscription email from Angry Robot Books telling me I could download the titles for May. Omega Point picks up where Reality 36 leaves off (so spoilers for that one, ’kay?).
Richards, a Class Five AI, and his cyborg partner Otto Klein, are running for their lives. Richards finds himself trapped in the Reality Realms, derelict remnants of advanced immersive virtual environments that their foe has co-opted for a more nefarious purpose. Meanwhile, in the Real, Otto is forced into an uneasy alliance with the VIA, the agency in charge of watching (and policing) artificial intelligences. They have to act fast to curtail the plans of k52, another Class Five. If they fail, there’s no telling how many innocent people will lose their lives. But as Haley shows, even success can come at a grim price.
I was originally going to compare Omega Point to the previous novel by saying that this book is less of a mystery and more of a thriller. That’s not true, though. The mystery of Reality 36 was who was behind the death of Zhang Qifang—not to mention the nuclear attack on the office of Richards & Klein. These were very much existential threats, which kept the stakes high and the pace quick. In Omega Point, we know who the villain is, but k52’s plans are still unclear (though they are pretty easy to figure out if you’re familiar with this genre). Richards original enters the Reality Realms to do some recon, but he gets stuck there when k52’s defences go up.
As much as I like Richards as a character, I did not enjoy most of the chapters that feature him. Haley’s descriptions of Reality 37, as Richards dubs it, are detailed and fantastical, but the milieu doesn’t do much for me. It was a somewhat wonky, Alice in Wonderland atmosphere that was jarring in juxtaposition with the suspenseful or thrilling chapters featuring Klein and Valdaire. The inherently mutable nature of the Reality Realm makes it difficult to get a sense of the rules, which in turn makes picking up on foreshadowing and trying to untangle the complicated knots of mystery much harder. That is to say, it’s like reading a mystery novel where the killer turns out to have been disguised as an armchair the entire time. The only truly fascinating aspect of these chapters was watching Richards deal with being trapped in a realistic simulation of a human body. Richards, like a lot of non-human entities in fiction, emulates the humanoid form and often wonders what it is like to be human. Now that he has a chance to experience meat, he’s finding it a rude awakening.
I much preferred the chapters in the Real, where Klein and Valdaire go after the one man they think can shed some light on what might be happening in the Reality Realms. (This subplot is quite literally a game of “Where’s Waldo?”, which was a fun callback the first three times Haley used it and then became somewhat stale.) Alas, their efficacy is hindered by the pursuit of a cyborg agent, Kaplinsky, who has some serious Terminator-like invulnerability happening. Kaplinsky is a foil to Klein, who unlike his garrulous partner is much more withdrawn and taciturn. Kaplinsky is the machine-like being Klein might have come had he not had the emotional stability provided by his wife. Now, he’s wrapped up in memories of his wife’s death owing to complications from her cybernetic implants. These painful memories are inextricably linked to what Klein himself has become.
Haley masterfully weaves these intimate effects of technology on people (artificial or not) into the larger story. Although the Singularity is absent from the world of Richards & Klein, the trend of our growing dependence on automation and algorithms has continued relentlessly. The question now is not so much “will the machines replace us” as it is “will the machines rule us [because they’re better at it]?” Computers are just really good at some tasks, particularly when it comes to sorting through information. Even now we’re handing over so much autonomy and authority to computer systems, so the idea that this has become the default in the 22nd century is not so far-fetched.
I can’t say the same for Haley’s use of the eponymous Omega Point as k52’s ultimate goal. This is a topic that comes up often in far-future considerations of posthumanism, and I find the various interpretations given by different authors both fascinating and thought-provoking. Although Haley’s revelation is perfectly consistent with what we already know about k52’s personality, I’m still having trouble understanding why k52’s attainment of the Omega Point in the Reality Realms would be such a threat to the Real. I understand that during its moment of infinite simulated processing power k52 will be able to simulate all possible realities and therefore become omniscient. Yet what good does this do k52 if it only has that one moment to act before the reality of an electromagnetic pulse fries all the Reality Realm servers? It’s all well and good to achieve apotheosis in a simulation, but if you can’t reach out from the simulation because all your servers have just been destroyed … well, let’s just say that this aspect of k52’s plan still confuses me. (Plus, I’m sceptical that we’d have servers capable of even simulating towards an Omega Point that aren’t unwieldy, planet-sized carbon computers….)
Whereas Reality 36 had a feeling that anything could happen, Omega Point has a much more linear plot, with Richards & Klein racing against time towards a final boss fight. For me, this makes it less enjoyable. Reality 36 certainly has a more profound exploration of how Richards relates to and interacts with the real world. The glimpses of “ordinary” activities for Richards, whether it’s travelling the Grid to meet with another AI or donning a sheathe to do some recon, were really cool. In contrast, Richards stuck in a simulated meat suit in the Reality Realms was less interesting. Similarly, with Richards & Klein separated for the majority of the book, we get very little banter between the AI and the cyborg. That was one of my favourite parts of Reality 36! Hence, Omega Point provides the much-needed conclusion to the story started in Reality 36 but doesn’t quite cause that same satisfied feeling I had upon finishing its predecessor.
In an afterword, Haley writes that he has tried not to focus on a single Big Idea but rather create a future that is cogent, self-consistent, and “plausible”—plus, he wanted to write a story that was entertaining. I think he’s succeeded in these respects, although we could spend a long time quibbling about what qualifies as plausible! He’s not so much predicting the future as sketching a future based on current trends, and then using that future to examine the consequences of some of our major contemporary concerns, from global warming to the increasing complexity of machines. Whatever the method, the results are definitely worth reading. I look forward to the next Richards & Klein investigation, whenever that may be….
**spoiler alert** Oh, Mockingjay, I’m just not sure what to do with you.
I suppose that at this point the trilogy has taken on a certain trajectory. Ka...more**spoiler alert** Oh, Mockingjay, I’m just not sure what to do with you.
I suppose that at this point the trilogy has taken on a certain trajectory. Katniss rebelled against the Capitol, inadvertently started an uprising, and now finds herself the face of that revolution regardless of her desires in the matter. It seems inevitable that the third and final book will feature the climax of this uprising, an assault on the Capitol, and one last confrontation with the apparently serpentine President Snow. This is my way of saying that Mockingjay’s predictability was itself predictable and not inherently a bad thing. Unfortunately, Suzanne Collins did nothing to allay my problems with the world and characters she has constructed.
In my review of Catching Fire I lamented Katniss’ loss of agency. This remains a problem in Mockingjay, where Collins explicitly portrays it as part of the conflict Katniss faces: District 13’s leaders want her to be their “Mockingjay”, a face of the revolution for propaganda and inspiration. Collins lays on thickly the parallels between the Mockingjay role and Katniss’ time as a tribute and victor for the Capitol, including an outfit designed by Cinna and her old prep team back for one last bow. She has almost no say in where she goes or what she does, and she is not so much a frontline warrior as a glamour soldier for the cause.
So the question then becomes: does Katniss somehow regain her agency by the end of the book? Does she retake her independence and begin once again making decisions for herself? Arguably she does, but it’s a long time in coming and not very satisfying when it happens. The problem with Mockingjay and, alas, by extension the entire series, is that it confirms the suspicion lurking in my mind since the middle of Catching Fire: Katniss is just a spectator. She was in the right place at the right time to spark a revolution, and now she is going along for the ride.
Perhaps there’s nothing wrong with this. Indeed, perhaps on some level this is how many revolutions work: few symbols intend to be symbols or set out to inspire rebellion. Yet it’s disheartening, especially after the first book’s emphasis on Katniss’ self-determination, to see that she has been reduced to nothing more than an observer. True, without her presence as a symbol the Capitol would likely have crushed the rebellion with extreme prejudice. But that’s all she is, at every turn. Even toward the climax of the novel, when she finally makes it to the Capitol and goes off to murder President Snow, Katniss is just an observer to the final act that ends the rebellion. She wakes up a few days later and gets filled in by another character. (Fade to black: rebellion over.)
This is a dramatic and very strange arc for Katniss’ character. One would expect it to work in reverse: a character with very little volition or agency slowly begins to gain a sense of self and self-determination, culminating in a final act of rebellion or sacrifice that makes the difference. Here, we begin in The Hunger Games with Katniss urging Peeta to commit suicide with her in order to cheat the Capitol of its victor. In Catching Fire she resolves to save Peeta once again but ends up being rescued by District 13 in the eleventh hour. Now, in Mockingjay, she sort of floats around aimlessly for the majority of the novel. Towards the end we get flashes of the former, fiery Katniss, only for any hopes of significant contributions to get dashed by the events I mention above.
Except, of course, it’s not that simple. It never is, is it? Katniss does commit one act so shocking it requires a trial, an act that alters the future of Panem forever—hopefully in a positive way. Try as I might, I cannot pigeonhole Mockingjay or Katniss into a neat little box of disappointment. There are glimmers of hope that are enough to keep me ambivalent about how this trilogy ultimately concludes.
The ending also portrays Katniss as suffering through a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. I don’t want to mislabel anything here—but I think Collins does a good job demonstrating the toll that Katniss’ twisted life has had on her psychology. Although I continue to long for a more explicit discussion of this whole killing thing—because, let’s face it, Collins makes every other message in these books explicit and obvious—I have to admit that the Katniss of Mockingjay is no longer the uncertain child we met at the beginning of The Hunger Games. She is damaged goods now. Worse still, she survives the rebellion. Many characters mention throughout the book, in one of several clumsy incidences of foreshadowing, that no one knows what to do with Katniss.
Collins plays up the “what happens to the warrior after she wins the war” theme very neatly. It’s so easy for a series like this to conclude immediately after the rebellion ends and offer no hints as to the future. Collins instead goes more the Harry Potter route, with an all-too-brief epilogue. But this is enough to let us see the permanent scars to Katniss’ psyche. It’s rather like the exchange between Mal and the Operative in Serenity: the Operative is working to create a better world, a world with no place for men like the two of them. Katniss created a world that no longer needs her, but by dint of all that she has experienced, it’s not the world she needs.
This series has catapulted to absurd heights of popularity. I don’t think it deserves to endure as a literary masterpiece (then again, I don’t make those decisions). Yet I won’t heap upon it unearned condemnation simply because of the hype that follows in its wake. The Hunger Games was a pretty good novel. In many ways, the latter two books are disappointing, especially by comparison. Their stories are still relatively complex, but their characters’ motivations are less fully explored.
In discussing this review and my reaction to the series with a friend, I came to one additional revelation. For all my griping, it seems obvious that these books are far superior to Twilight, and even if one doesn’t always appreciate the story or think highly of the plot and character development, the following is true: these books make readers, particularly teens, think. Katniss doesn’t always have agency, but she has issues beyond wondering whether to date a vampire or a werewolf. She’s trapped in a post-apocalyptic totalitarian police state that forces children to fight to the death! That’s something to talk about. We can have discussions about The Hunger Games beyond “Team Edward or Team Alice?” (Hint: answer is “Team Alice”). That potential for meaningful conversation is valuable.
In the end, though, I think it all comes down to Katniss Everdeen. She is the heart and soul of these books: their narrator, their protagonist, their girl on fire. The books live or die on Katniss’ ability to hold the reader’s interest, to be someone with whom the readers can empathize. We don’t always have to like her, but we have to understand her. In my opinion, the last two books in the series begin to waver in their connection with Katniss. In so doing, they lose what made The Hunger Games so special, fading back into the general noise of all those other books that want to be like them.
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is funny, at least to my own humour schema. I’m aware that some people wil...moreOne of the best books I’ve read this year.
Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is funny, at least to my own humour schema. I’m aware that some people will not find this book funny, and that their reactions will vary from a grumpy, “Hmph” to wide-eyed sense of shock to “I’m grabbing my torch and pitchfork to burn this”. I’m the one writing this review, though, and unlike DVD commentary, the views and opinions expressed herein entirely reflect my views.
I first started following the Bloggess on Twitter last year, after someone linked to her post about Beyoncé the Metal Chicken. (That post is a chapter in the book, so congratulations on the free sample. Seriously though, read that post and some of her blog; it will give you a good idea whether this book is for you.) Anyone who asks Wil Wheaton for a picture of him collating papers is someone whose writing I need to read. The Bloggess is a constant source of humour, whimsy, and improbable anecdotes. So when I heard she had a “mostly true memoir” coming out, I knew I would need to buy at least one copy.
I ended up buying two, because in my infinite wisdom I knew this book would be my Mother’s Day gift this year.
Normally I can read somewhat inconspicuously in a crowd or in a social situation where people don’t normally read, such as at lunch or a small party. This was difficult to do with Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, because I laughed out loud at almost every single page. I have a very loud, distinctive laugh. I inhale when I laugh instead of exhale, so I sound like a hyperventilating howler monkey. Or a very upset dog. My laughter usually results in other people laughing (with me and at me), so I think that’s a good thing. But in this case it meant I stopped reading after page 4 on Wednesday evening because I didn’t want to wake my dad. I had to restrain myself as much as I could on Thursday while reading this during my dinner break at work, for the walls between the kitchen and the front desk are not that thick.
In fact, I was so taken by this book that I did something I almost never do and inflicted it on groups of my friends on two separate occasions. Because, honestly, who doesn’t want to hear a man read aloud, deadpan, sentences like, “If someone asked me to pick out my own vagina’s mug shot out of a lineup of vaginas, I’d be helpless. And probably concerned about what exactly my vagina had been doing that constituted a need for its own mug shot”? I’m not just endorsing this book; I’m evangelizing it. This is a book my friends need to read, and I am more than happy to read it to them.
Being funny is difficult. I know this because people have told me, on occasion, I am funny, and it’s usually in response to something I said spontaneously rather than something I said with the intention of being witty. There is a fine line between sounding witty and sounding stupid, just as there is a fine line between genius and madness. Nothing is worse than reading a “humourous” book that is trying too hard. For every Let’s Pretend This Never Happened there are hundreds of memoirs that try to be funny and just aren’t. (But this review is not about them.)
I don’t know why Let’s Pretend This Never Happened escapes that fate. If I did, then I suspect I would use this knowledge to make a lot of money. As it stands, I think there’s just something that feels natural about the way Lawson writes. Although, as the subtitle notes, some of these accounts are fictionalized or adjusted for truthiness, they are ultimately drawn from the best source of inspiration for absurdity: real life. While I do not envy Lawson’s circumstances or experiences, some of which sound pretty inconvenient rather than enviable, I do admire the unadulterated joy, the uncut enthusiasm for living, that suffuses her accounts of those experiences. If you get your arm stuck up a cow’s vagina in high school, then you will be traumatized for life, but at least you can turn it into a funny story.
That’s probably why this book speaks to me. I try my best to be whimsical. That is to say, I try to do random or absurd things that we tend to be trained out of doing as we enter adulthood. It’s part of my essential philosophy of being who I want to be instead of who others think I should be; there’s nothing wrong with being responsible, safe, and mature … but that doesn’t mean you have to be boring. Decorum be damned, I have snowball fights in the winter and wear socks and sandals in the summer! And I will keep doing these things, at least until global warming causes snow to go extinct here.
So it’s heartening to encounter someone else who follows such a philosophy, albeit to an even more public and more spectacular degree. Let’s Pretend This Never Happened inspires, variously, feelings of elation, apprehension, terror, relief, and incredulity. Lawson grew up confronted by a menagerie of animals bobcats, “jumbo quail” (actually turkeys), and raccoons. Those are just the living ones and don’t include the taxidermied creations of her father, such as Stanley the Magical Squirrel. From this … charmed … childhood to her fifteen years in human resources to her fifteen years of marriage (poor Victor), Lawson has an abundance of incredible episodes to share. As she notes throughout the book, some of the stories that sound the least believable are the most factual (TVTropes). (The book has photos to prove it.) Humour books can sometimes feel like too much dessert. This book, however, is a full meal: interspersed with her humour, Lawson includes some fairly serious and significant events in her life. Sharing these stories takes courage too. The Internet can be a harsh, judgemental environment.
The overwhelming emotion I’m feeling, though, is joy. Joy mixed with a helping of satisfaction. It’s as simple as that: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened is just really fun to read. My laughter is testament enough to that fact. If you like the sound of the Bloggess’ humour, do yourself a favour and read this book. Or I just might put a giant metal chicken on your doorstep.
Pirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers aro...morePirates of Nirado River takes place in an alternative universe where kids have been forced to form ad-hoc pirate gangs that cruise down the rivers around Dog Lake in tricked out canoes. These gangs fight wars with crap apples, commit arson on abandoned cabins, and poach rabbits off Crown land. When one or more gangs have a dispute, they settle it through complex negotiation, kidnapping, and bondage.
All of the above is true, except for the “alternative universe” thing. Actually, the pirate gangs are just “clubs” (the precise amount of formal organization is never made clear) that children belong to based on age group. The Nirado River Pirates are one such club, with children aged 11 and 12 in it. There are a few other bands: the Dog Lake Pirates, the Spruce River Pirates, and the Silver Mountain Pirates. But the (potential) arson, rabbit poaching, and rampant crab apple warfare are all true; I swear.
This book is perhaps the furthest from my usual fare that I’ve read all year. I’m making a conscious effort to read more young adult fiction in an attempt to stay connected to what the students I’ll be teaching are reading. This, of course, is not young adult fiction; it’s a chapter book billed for ages 7–12. I am doubtful I would ever have picked this up on my own.
The school where I’m doing my student teaching practicum is reading this. Every class has to read it together and do some kind of activity based on the book, culminating in an assembly next week with a visit from the author. Michael Setala is local and the book is set nominally in an area outside our city, though it doesn’t really matter. Our class is reading the book this week, so I read it in preparation. At 78 pages of large print, it was not a massive infringement upon my time. Indeed, my tea hardly got cold.
Children’s literature is, in some ways, a whole different ballgame from adult literature. I don’t know how to review it (or really how to read it, for that matter), so take this review with a grain of salt. From what I know of children’s literature, though, writing it must be hard compared to writing adult fiction. An author writing adult fiction has the benefit of being on relatively even ground with the audience, who will have about the same vocabulary and comprehension skills (though authors are probably more practised in these categories for occupational reasons). With children’s literature, the author is writing to an audience whose skills are neither developed nor nuanced. Moreover, the variation across and within age groups is staggering. Some 6-year-olds are reading chapter books for 10-year-olds while their older siblings struggle with the 6-year-old material. So not only do authors have to get in the right mindset to write stories that will captivate kids, but they need to write in a language that is meaningful.
What I’m trying to say is that I have the utmost respect for children’s authors and their labours.
But that doesn’t mean I’ll let just anything slide. If anything, I’m going to be more critical, because what children read is almost as important as what they eat—food fuels the body; books fuel the mind.
Pirates of Nirado River is set to the northwest of Thunder Bay, Ontario. Thunder Bay is my hometown and the only place I want to live (though I may move away for a few years until I find work here). I love this place, even though I am not the most outdoorsy type of person, and I’m always thrilled to learn of fiction set here. While this book is set here, it’s not really set here. All the author does is drop the names of some local rivers and landforms. I feel like the story could be transposed to any other location with rivers and a mountain and work just as well. Perhaps this universality is a virtue for the book and its potential audience, but I think it undermines any argument in favour of this book simply because “it’s set in Thunder Bay”.
For all its sweeping universality, though, Pirates of Nirado River contains a lamentably uncomplicated story. The Dog Lake Pirates are trying to burn down the Nirado River Pirates’ cabin in retaliation for something they think the Nirado River crew has done. So the venerable Captain Corey decides to negotiate, and after several misunderstandings, all gets resolved to everyone’s satisfaction, and they sit down for some rabbit stew. I suppose Setala is trying for the message that compromise and conversation are better ways to resolve conflict than all-out fighting; he wraps the message in several scenes of crab apple warfare for some action goodness. But the conflict and its resolution seem wildly unbalanced.
At its core, the conflict is basically a territorial squabble between gangs. It’s not very interesting, so I can understand why it only takes a few chapters to resolve. There is no real meat to the story, just scene after scene of the Nirado River Pirates paddling up and down the river to meet with various gangs and fling crab apples. It’s supposed to be invigorating and suspenseful, but it’s unremarkable more than anything else.
The only part of the plot that really got my attention was the two attempts to burn down the cabin used by the Nirado River Pirates. I don’t know who owns the cabin or the land it’s on, but I doubt they would take kindly to arson. What kind of “club” structure is this that encourages children to retaliate by burning down cabins? And this cabin is off a lake, presumably in a wooded area, where an uncontrolled conflagration can easily lead to a forest fire. Where is the forest ranger? Who’s supervising these hooligans?
On some level I’m sure I’m taking this too seriously when I should just sit back and enjoy where the story takes me. I disagree, but the plot isn’t the only problem with Pirates of Nirado River. Its characters are similarly dull and lifeless. Now, just as Setala does an excellent job describing the action, he also does a good job describing the characters themselves. I don’t take issue with how he describes them. But the characters he creates through these descriptions are just as uncomplicated as the conflict they solve. There are never any moments of doubt, nor are there moments of heroism, of treachery and betrayal, or of regret. Children experience emotions every bit as complex as adults; they may not be able to understand the emotions using the same language we do, but those emotions are there and should be portrayed in the characters they read about.
Also, Pirates of Nirado River is a boys-only book. The single female character is someone’s mother, and I think she has about one line. There are no older or younger sisters hanging about, let alone any girls in the gangs proper. From cover to cover, this is a book about boys doing stereotypical boy activities. Granted, they resolve their problems through level-headed discussion, which is commendable. Ultimately, though, if we ask girls to be a part of a reading experience—such as when an entire school reads a book—we should try to find books that will appeal to them as well. I’m not saying Pirates of Nirado River appeals only to boys, but it doesn’t go out of its way to make it easy for girls to identify with the characters or their problems. Despite its positive theme and upbeat conclusion, as far as genders go in this book, girls are invisible—and I find that deeply problematic.
I feel a little bad adding this book to Goodreads and then eviscerating it. To be fair, it’s not so much poorly written as it is poorly conceived. The book itself is probably—I don’t have much experience to go on—fairly typical for the kind of fare I expect we’re feeding children. But it’s not amazing, and if anything it’s too simple, especially for an older audience like my Grade 8 class. In the afterword, we learn that the author wrote the first draft of this story when he himself was around 12 years old … and frankly, that explains a lot. There’s a reason most authors have consign the first novel they ever write to the deepest, darkest corner of a locked drawer in the bottom of their filing cabinet: no matter what the skill level or the intent, the product just isn’t that good. Pirates of Nirado River is an earnest effort and definitely something I would love reading if it came from someone in Grade 7 or Grade 8. From an adult trying to write to children … it’s lacking.
Given my reading habits, and how quickly I read, I find it difficult to go out and get every issue of a serial. I’v...moreI don’t read comic books that much.
Given my reading habits, and how quickly I read, I find it difficult to go out and get every issue of a serial. I’ve read some collected works, like Sandman, and enjoyed them—storytelling is storytelling, whether it’s in words or art on a page. Digital editions might help, once we finally give up on that DRM nonsense. However, even with that hurdle cleared, I’ll admit I’m not a very visual person. Pictures, whether they are paintings or prints or ink drawings, do not communicate with me the same way words on a page do—they don’t, as I explained to a friend while we saw Picasso at the AGO, convey as much semantic information to me. This is why, above any other literary form, I am so drawn to the novel: it’s a word-dense method of storytelling, and that appeals to me.
Nevertheless, I think I “dig” comics. I appreciate them, perhaps not as fervently as other fans, but with an eye towards their cultural and artistic significance nonetheless. Even if that weren’t the case, after Lynne M. Thomas’ excellent Chicks Dig Time Lords, pre-ordering this from Amazon was a no-brainer. Besides, we nerd genres need to stick together!
At first, I was a little disappointed with Chicks Dig Comics. It might be that I’m less excited about comics than I am about Doctor Who, so perhaps that dampened my enthusiasm for the subjects of these essays. However, I was expecting more of the focused critique of the medium that I saw in Chicks Dig Time Lords. Many of the essays therein were personal, yes, but they always referred back to the show, its production, and its delivery. It was an edification for me, as a fan who came to the series through its 2005 regeneration, to read those accounts. Chicks Dig Comics definitely has a more personal feel to it; almost every essay is about a female fan’s involvement with comic books and how this has enhanced or intersected with her other identities and roles in life.
In that sense, this book doesn’t disappoint—it just wasn’t quite what I expected at first. The essays and interviews are thoughtful, well-written, and above all, insightful. As I continued through the book, my initial disappointment evaporated and then condensed into approval. Because as I kept reading, I started to realize that Chicks Dig Comics isn’t actually “a celebration of comic books” like its subtitle claims. It’s a celebration—and a confession—of the experiences women have with comic books, their relationship to comic books over time. Hence, while the discussions of how most comic books seem aimed and young men are certainly there, they aren’t the focus here.
The value of Chicks Dig Comics comes from the fact it provides space for minorities to speak up about what comics mean to them. The value comes from a reader getting to hear about an experience and say, “Yes, I understand what you mean completely—I’ve had a similar one.” It’s that instant connection to the authors, that sense that you are not alone. It’s putting into words what other fans have felt but could not express. It’s a celebration of women who love comics by women who love comics—and that’s awesome.
The moment this clicked didn’t come until all the way on page 129, during the interview with Greg Rucka. In response to writing so many series with women as the leads, he says this:
But, I think, in all honesty? In all sincerity? I female-identify. I like writing about female characters. I can even go back through my writing—and here I’m talking about the stuff I wrote when I was in my teens … and those stories almost universally have female leads.
And then, to the follow-up question regarding his conscious choice to portray genderqueer characters:
Also, inasmuch as I have always been aware of feminism and interested in feminist politics, I’ve been very aware of sexual politics and issues of sexuality. And, not to be glib about it, but if I female-identify and I’m in a heterosexual relationship, what does that make me? I’ve always been comfortable in my own body, enough that I’m pretty content being biologically male. But certainly intellectually, and emotionally, I’d say that I’ve always identified far more as female than male.
This resonates with me quite a bit. I very carefully reached up to the top left corner of the page and deliberately folded it down into a neat triangle. I don’t dog-ear pages! I annotate; I underline, but to crease the page? I did it anyway.
My exploration of feminism and involvement in feminist discourse has been as much about exploring my own gender identity, and the way I perform gender, as it has been about critiquing gender roles in wider society. A lot of what Rucka says above applies to me—and I’ve said it in various bits and pieces to people at one time or another, but I don’t know if I’ve ever put it all together so succinctly. I too am straight and pretty comfortable in my body (my teeth could be better). But I tend to form stronger friendships with women than I do men. Like Rucka, my stories often involve women protagonists or at least very important women main characters. And I’m intensely interested in what it’s like to be a woman. (I’m not sure whether the relationship between these last two things is cause-and-effect or effect-and-cause.) It is a perspective I cannot, owing to my biology and socialization, realize myself; I have to seek it vicariously through literature and discussions with female friends. For me, personally, my involvement with feminism has been a quest for empathy.
The bottom line here, though, is that this is a book about women and comics, about women who love comics, and all the awesomeness that results. It crosses generations and occupations—there are essays and interviews here from fans, from authors, from editors, from artists. Rather than presenting a prescriptive, monolithic definition of what it means to be a female fan, Chicks Digs Comics embraces a diversity of perspectives. There are differing opinions on what makes a female character empowered, for instance, or the nature of Barbara Gordon’s transition from able-bodied Batgirl to the disabled Oracle. As with so many things viewed through the lens of feminism, I think it can be tempting to simply condemn comics for being bastions of the male gaze or otherwise demeaning to women—and some of the contributors note the surprised reactions they receive when other women learn of their self-professed feminist fandom. Chicks Digs Comics belies this approach to feminism by exposing the nuance that makes comics worthwhile.
I don’t always read comics. But I do occasionally read books about comics! Because sometimes, things about comics aren’t just about comics, in the same way that comics aren’t just about spandex and onomatapeia. There’s something good here, something human and true. It’s academic, and meaningful, and personal. So if you like comics, even if you don’t read them all that often, read this. And if you don’t like comics? Maybe this will lift the cloud of confusion over why so many women do.