Weird. Saw the movie first; thought it very charming. The movie follows the book pretty closely, but is somehow vastly superior. Book Jane is just notWeird. Saw the movie first; thought it very charming. The movie follows the book pretty closely, but is somehow vastly superior. Book Jane is just not as loveable as Keri Russell. Full review to come....more
Out on an isolated British island, something is killing Jake Whyte’s sheep, one by one. Could it be another animal? A human being? Something else entirely?
So when a stranger named Lloyd wanders by, Jake lets him into her home, perhaps thinking two against the world is better than one. But Jake has a past, one that prevents her from trust others so easily.
I added All the Birds, Singing to my to-read list when I read the wonderful review on Jeff VanderMeer’s blog. I agree that Ms. Wyld’s prose is “exceptional,” “atmospheric,” and “muscular without being lush or overly descriptive”:
There were times I felt how unnatural I was in the place, the way my skin still stung at the cold, the way the insides of my nostrils and the back of my throat prickled. The smell of wet wool and rain-dampened sheep shit were aliens to the dust-dry smell of the carpet sheep in their wide red spaces back home. The way the land seemed to be watching me, feeling my foreignness in it, holding its breath until I passed by.
Other than her writing, however, almost nothing ultimately works for me. I hungrily read most of the book, thinking I’d get more insight into Jake by the ending. I did, but it was not enough.
All the Birds, Singing unfolds in chapters alternating in time: Jake’s current life, and the one she thought she ran away from. We learn about her current life in a linear fashion, whereas her past is revealed in reverse-chronological order.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with that setup. But when a writer hints and foreshadows certain past life events to come, a reader such as myself feels cheated when those same events, or relationships, are glossed over. (Note, though, the one moment in Jake’s life that changes everything is revealed.) I’m not a reader that needs every moment revealed and exposited, but these holes in Jake’s life are unsatisfying. It’s almost as if the “past life” timeline needed to be sped up and events removed so that there would be equal chapters of both past and present—because very little actually happens in the present to justify more chapters. So, as a result, the present versus past setup feels uneven and asymmetrical on pacing alone.
In addition, the two timelines are tonally and stylistically different enough to feel like two separate tales. Jake’s present life is more atmospheric and psychological, whereas Jake’s past life is a more visceral and plot-driven. Again, nothing inherently wrong with that, although if one timeline is significantly more plot-driven than the other, I have to find a really good payoff at the other end of the rainbow. There’s payoff here, but one that seems contrived, one that misses the mark.
I’ve read other nonlinear books that employ their storytelling devices to much better effect. In Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, the protagonist’s present and past are both fairly plot-driven, and the ultimate convergence of storylines feels satisfying. In The Secret Place, Tana French almost does tell two separate, stylistically-different tales, but the takeaways converge and diverge artfully. In Kaaron Warren’s Slights, we get a wholly nonlinear series of anecdotal puzzle-pieces that, by the end, formed a chilling character portrait.
I am also reminded of Gaspar Noé’s brutal movie, Irreversible, which was told entirely in reverse. And there’s certainly a reason to tell a story backwards; for one, it highlights what would otherwise be the beginning of a tale, before innocence is lost. All the Birds, Singing does do that, but did we have to go through this entire exercise just to show this one point?
Not to say that the book was a waste a time; far from it. It just promises more than it delivers.
Carbide Tipped Pens: Seventeen Tales of Hard Science Fiction is named after the hard science fiction writing group that editors Ben Bova and Eric Choi belonged to in the late 1990’s. The subtitle speaks for itself.
For me, the best hard science fiction uses its technical aspects to enhance tales of human interest. The editors of Carbide Tipped Pens seem to agree, as the bookend stories are among the strongest. The first story, “The Blue Afternoon that Lasted Forever” by Daniel H. Wilson of Robopocalypse fame, is about fatherly love. The physicist father, who likely suffers from Asperger syndrome, is unable to muster enough emotion to convince his wife to stay. Nor is he particularly sensitive to the feelings of other people’s kids (keep in mind that all quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change):
Perez’s son is five years old and at the department picnic the boy could not tell me how many miles it is to the troposphere. And he says he wants to be an astronaut. Good luck, kid.
But he expresses his love for his daughter by providing stability and protection, even during a potentially apocalyptic event.
The final story, Nancy Fulda’s “Recollection,” examines spousal affection when the husband has been cured of Alzheimer’s, but the memories already robbed by the disease cannot be recovered. As the husband observes:
You must have loved her, once. Yes, you almost certainly loved her, and the endless prattle now spilling off her lips must be weighted with decades’ worth of meaning—shared jokes, shared secrets, shared opinions . . . Each fleeting phrase a lifeline to a hoarded wealth of common history. It should mean something to you, but it doesn’t.
These two stories are tearjerkers, if you are so inclined. (I was.)
The editors’ own tales are also excellent. Ben Bova’s “Old Timer’s Game” explores the problems professional athletics will have to deal with once the medical field advances even farther.
In Eric Choi’s “She Just Looks That Way,” scientists begin to treat those with body dysmorphic disorder by modifying neural pathways. The protagonist, however, wants to use the same technology to modify his own standards of beauty, so that he will no longer find his uninterested beloved attractive.
Since the future will of course include non-Western cultures, it’s refreshing to see that Carbide Tipped Pens also presents non-Western perspectives. Aliette de Bodard’s “A Slow Unfurling of Truth” deals with universal issues—how we authenticate identity when we are no longer tied to only one body—but the story is set in her alternate universe of Xuya, where China discovered the Americas first. (Note, however, that based on the character names, this particular story appears to be part of alternate Vietnamese history.)
Speaking of Chinese and alternate histories, Cixin Liu’s “The Circle” contemplates what history may have been had King Zheng of Qin (also known in our version of history as Qing Shi Huang) been distracted by ordering his army to carrying out computing functions, hoping to find the answer to immortality. At first, I was a little disappointed that “The Circle” was primarily an adaptation of an excerpt of the amazing The Three-Body Problem, but the context and outcome are distinct enough to still be entertaining. That such two disparate tales can be told out of a similar concept illustrates how flexible premises can be.
While most of the authors have impressive technical and/or scientific résumés, a few authors have more humanities-related accomplishments. Two authors, Jack McDevitt and Kate Story, integrate Shakespeare into their stories, with varying success. McDevitt’s “The Play’s the Thing” is a charming tale of a scientist’s recreation of Shakespeare’s knowledge and personality (or whoever wrote the plays attributed to Shakespeare) in computer pod form. When the pod demonstrates itself as artificial intelligence that far exceeds its creator’s intentions, we get a second coming of William Shakespeare. Kate Story’s “The Yoke of Inauspicious Stars,” on the other hand, was a somewhat limp retelling of Romeo and Juliet set on Europa, a frozen moon of Jupiter. While it was interesting to see how Story adapted the play into a science fiction soap opera, the science fiction setting added little to the story.
The weaker tales here tend to be those that neglect the story for science or technology. Jean-Louis Trudel’s “The Snows of Yesteryear” is a bit too pedantic and preachy for my tastes. If we are to examine human motivations for ignoring or discounting science in favor of greed or politics, Doug Beason’s “Thunderwell” is more successful. In “Thunderwell,” where a NASA administrator has to balance her latest crew’s safety against her country’s worldwide political standing, the stakes feel more urgent and personal.
While the science fiction premises may be interesting, primarily adapting those premises into dialogue—such as in Howard Hendrix’s “Habilis”—does not an interesting story make. That’s not to say highly technical dialogue cannot be interesting; Carl Frederick’s “Ambiguous Nature” also pokes fun at the nature of scientific articles and Dirk Strasser’s “The Mandelbrot Bet” also exudes some deadpan humor as a time traveling scientist’s success comes at the expense of a missed connection.
For me at least, the joy of reading anthologies comes from discovering new authors, more so than loving every single story. (I’ve yet to read a collection where I’ve loved every single story.) By that measure, and by its thought-provoking nature, Carbide Tipped Pens is a good, solid collection of hard science fiction.
Breq—former ancillary of the ship Justice of Toren—had originally intended on killing Anaander Mianaai, the Lord of the Radch who ordered the Justice of Toren to execute its beloved captain, Lieutenant Awn. But the leader has too intriguing a role for Breq: the Lord grants Breq the use of her last name, Mianaai, as well as command of the ship, Mercy of Kalr, and Breq is to travel to Athoek Station and to make amends with Lieutenant Awn’s sister, a horticulturist partly responsible for a good portion of the Radch’s tea supply.
As captain of the Mercy of Kalr, Breq chose two of her three officers: Seivarden Vendaai and the respected Lieutenant Ekalu. The third, however, was appointed by the Lord herself—a promising but entirely green with inexperience Lieutenant Tisarwat, who proves to be even more trouble than meets the eye.
Ship politics aside, local politics on Athoek Station also flare up with the arrival of Breq, now a Fleet Commander. The Station AI is displeased, the alien Presger may be secretly contemplating a war, and the Ghost Gate may be hiding something that can undermine the Radchaai empire.
I loved Ancillary Justice and I love Breq. I even grew to love Seivarden Vendaai, who has cleaned up since the first book, and is now much more respectable, as well as respectful of Breq.
Ancillary Sword is slower paced than its predecessor, but the politics are engrossing. There’s also plenty of galactic sightseeing, cultural observations, and interesting conversations:
Lieutenant Tisarwat staggered into the room just as Five was clearing away the last supper dish and Translator Dlique was saying, very earnestly, “Eggs are so inadequate, don’t you think? I mean, they ought to be able to become anything, but instead you always get a chicken. Or a duck. Or whatever they’re programmed to be. You never get anything interesting, like regret, or the middle of the night last week.” The entire dinner conversation had been like that.
At first it’s thrilling when Breq “tells it like it is” and tries to undo injustices meted out to ordinary citizens. But soon she starts coming off like the Ender from Xenocide: always right, always preachy.
“Such wisdom,” I observed dryly, “to know what everyone deserves.”
(Such irony coming from Breq herself.) If there’s anyone who could always know and do the right thing, and always make a point in mentioning the right thing, a ship AI like Breq would be a prime candidate. Still, as much as I may agree with Breq’s point-of-view, the idea of following someone around dispensing justice in the galaxy just feels so, well, self-congratulatory.
Having read this book in close succession to Ancillary Justice also meant that the book felt repetitive in certain aspects. We are reminded again and again what the word “Radchaai” means:
Not civilized. Not Radchaai. The word was the same, the only difference a subtlety expressed by context, and too easily wiped away.
* * *
Civilized. Radchaai. The word was the same.
* * *
Outside this system, Athoek looked like any other Radchaai system. Uniform. Wholly civilized.
Some reviewers claim that Ancillary Sword, while enjoyable, falls prey to the Middle Book Syndrome in its pacing and structure. To me, the book felt less like a middle book, and more like a second book in a long, long series. This journey, while entertaining overall, feels like such a detour with only a last-minute advancement of the overall plot. I wonder how quickly things can all tie together by the last book in the trilogy. But Ms. Leckie has already won me over, so I’m sure to stick around for the conclusion.
American Supernatural Tales collects twenty-six short stories by American authors organized in chronological order, from Washington Irving’s 1824 tale, “The Adventure of the German Student,” to Caitlín R. Kiernan’s 2000 tale, “In the Water Works (Birmingham, Alabama 1888). This collection was edited by S. T. Joshi, and the 2013 reissue of this book as part of the Penguin Horror series also includes an introduction by Guillermo Del Toro.
In the introduction, Mr. Joshi—best known as critic and biographer of H. P. Lovecraft—distinguishes “supernatural horror” from “psychological horror,” and while this book concentrates on the former, quite a few stories have elements of both (Stephen King’s “Night Surf” seems to be the only story with no supernatural element).
In compiling this volume, Mr. Joshi seems intent on refuting British critic William Hazlitt’s critiques on American horror, though Joshi admits that Hazlitt did raise a valid question, one that American authors have sought to answer:
Since so much of supernatural fiction appears to find the source of its terrors in the depths of the remote past, how can a nation that does not have much of a past express the supernatural in literature?
It’s interesting, then, that we begin with Washington Irving’s “The Adventure of the German Student,” a tale set in Paris and featuring a German protagonist, perhaps to show that the earliest American horror stories were still strongly influenced by European history. According to Henry A. Pochmann:
The tale is pitched in the vein of [E. T. A.] Hoffmann and has all the earmarks of a German tale; yet I have found no German source for it. Very possibly Irving’s own statement of its source in his mock-acknowledgment of sources for Tales of a Traveller is to be taken at face value. He says “The Adventures of the German Student . . . is founded on an anecdote related to me as existing somewhere in French . . . .”
While the tale references the guillotine, often associated with the French, similar folktales have been circulating elsewhere in the United States (though I have not been able to trace whether they pre- or post-date Irving’s story). Even where there may not be lingering fear of beheadings, there persists a fear of the woman who is not what she seems.
Up next is Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1838 tale, “Edward Randolph’s Portrait,” a tale that may have crossed the seas in the opposite direction, influencing one of London’s most popular playwrights, the Irish Oscar Wilde, in his only novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray. According to Kerry Powell:
[E]nough evidence exists to conclude that the numerous and detailed resemblances between Hawthorne and Wilde’s stories cannot be convincingly explained away as merely coincidental. If Oscar Wilde was not directly influenced by Hawthorne, it is safe to infer that Dorian Gray would not be the novel it is without Hawthorne in the background, at least, as a shaping influence of “prophetic picture” fiction as it developed later in the nineteenth century.
The book does not dwell on the European-American divide in horror for that long, however. As Mr. del Toro wrote in his series introduction, “[t]o learn what we fear is to learn who we are.” The stories from American Supernatural Tales therefore present further illumination on the American cultural zeitgeist at that time, the anxieties that we as Americans faced.
Of particular interest to me was Fritz Leiber’s 1949 tale, “The Girl with the Hungry Eyes.” The tale is concerned with consumerism and the rapid growth of the American advertising industry, but also male anxieties about female sexuality. While the fear of falling for the allure of women is not a new topic, and indeed has been previously treated in other folklore as vampiric (see huli jing, kitsune), Leiber’s tale infuses such fear with one of Marxist alienation—it’s one thing to be seduced by a woman in the flesh, but what happens when men are seduced by the mere image of a woman?
I love, then, that two stories later, we’re given Shirley Jackson’s 1952 tale, “A Visit.” What constitutes horror, from a female perspective, is being tied to a house, forever doomed to wait for the men to return, over and over—a horror perpetuated by patriarchal tradition, and even by the women from prior generations.
In anthologizing past stories, I imagine that it’s difficult to obtain the rights to all the stories one wishes to include (or to afford them). Mr. Joshi, as the editor of so many horror anthologies, perhaps also wished for the collected stories not to overlap with his other books. Unfortunately, with American Supernatural Tales, the short story featured may not be a particular author’s best work, or even one of his or her more exemplary works.
A massive shift also takes place once H. P. Lovecraft started publishing his stories. His influence was far-reaching, and I enjoyed the post-Lovecraft tales much more than the pre-Lovecraft tales.
In terms of enjoyment, I would have rather learned more about the author and the tale after each story instead of before; many introductions contained spoilers for the stories.
Just as 1980’s heavy metal music sounds tame by today’s standards, we are continually desensitized to horror tropes, and thanks also to graphic horror movies, it takes a lot for us to be horrified—at least by the printed word. The collection’s title leaves out the word “horror” altogether, and indeed, American Supernatural Tales is more effective as evidence of the evolving landscape of horror literature rather than a book read for scares.
Accordingly, I would recommend American Supernatural Tales for those who are more interested in the evolution of American horror than for those looking for scary stories.
The Mementi are a group of humans descended from genetically-altered ones who remember everything. Their memories are stored in “Link” beads that touch their body.
Seventeen-year-old Genesis “Gena” Lee is out partying one night when someone steals a Link from her beset friend, Cora, robbing Cora of her last two years and inflicting psychological damage. As Gena looks into the matter more, she discovers someone else seems to be stealing her own memories without ever touching her own Link beads. She will have to solve this mystery of the memory thief before she loses all her memories.
At around the 30% mark, I was ready to declare The Unhappening of Genesis Lee a DNF, which I do not do often—at least not after investing the time to read almost a third of a book. Although the teenage protagonists take some precautions to guard their Link beads—for example, Gena hides her beads under her gloves, the precautions are still unsatisfying. After all, Gena wears some of her beads on what amounts to a friendship bracelet crafted from her best friend, Cora (I’d be stringing them on titanium steel or something really sturdy, and certainly something made by professionals instead of a teenager). Cora herself, at least for their one night out, wears her beads braided into her hair. I hate to blame the victims here, and while Cora’s daring display isn’t without a point—it represents a certain naïve, teenage sense of indestructibility—I couldn’t help feel that our characters were being dumb just to move the plot forward.
Speaking of superpowers, I also felt that the Mementi were lacking. Instead of the oft-used trope, Cursed with Awesome, the Mementi seemed Blessed with Suck. Sure, they can remember everything, but since their memories are stored in the Link beads, and missing such beads can lead to lost memories and psychosis, I’ll stick with my boring Populace genes and keep my memories in my unreliable head. When it’s so easy to refer to the Internet for answers (not that it’s always reliable), a perfect memory seems less valuable than it may have been decades ago.
Despite being annoyed at the above, I decided to just finish the book, and I’m happy to report, it paid off. The book turns around at approximately the 40% mark, and delivers a lot of interesting twists and turns, and insight into why the talents of the Mementi may be admired. For one, Mementi memories can live on via the Link beads even when the Mementi are dead—this provides a measure of immortality (please note that the following quote is from an ARC and is subject to change):
“This is our cemetary,” I said, my words echoing. “The memories of those we love are stored here with their ashes after they die.”
The Unhappening of Genesis Lee also demonstrates how fragile our lives can be, however, when so much of our lives is dependent on memory. Not just our own, but how others perceive us.
Even with all the interesting questions raised, this book could have unraveled a lot of its progress with a typical happy ending. Instead, however, The Unhappening of Genesis Lee is not afraid to explore our deepest fears; it refuses to hand us any easy answers. It also trusts in human perseverance enough to make us work for what we want. It’s just hopeful enough and cynical enough to make this one of the more interesting young adult reads released this year.
I received a digital review copy of the book via Edelweiss, courtesy of Sky Pony Press.
Twin sisters Rio and Bay have always been close, and have only become closer after their mother’s death. During a once-in-a-lifetime ritual, the youth of Atlantia have the choice to stay below or to rise above the water to land, to work hard to help sustain the underwater paradise of Atlantia.
For all her life, Rio has wanted to breathe the air above, to walk where the sun shines. But Bay doesn’t want to be alone in Atlantia, so Rio promises to stay below. When the ritual comes along, Rio vows to stay below. In a surprising move, however, Bay announces she will go above, breaking Rio’s heart.
Rio is unwilling to accept a fate under the sea, so she will work as hard as she can to figure out how she can meet her sister on land. In Rio’s own words:
Justus told me, “of the vigilance we must keep in order to remain righteous and content with the lot we’ve been given.”
I have tried to be righteous all my life. Yet I have never been content.
The planning for the journey, of course, is a difficult one.
I didn’t think I had anything left to lose, but I do. You always have something left to lose. Until, of course, you die.
For those who are curious: Atlantia is not about mermaids, nor is it a retelling of The Little Mermaid. It’s more of a post-apocalyptic dystopian novel set mostly under the sea. For me, the protagonist’s name—Rio—also meant that Atlantia was set to the soundtrack of Duran Duran. (Her sister’s name being Bay instead of Bahia, I wonder why Rio wasn’t just named River.)
Ally Condie is a favorite author of mine. I don’t necessarily read her books for the storylines (which are good but not always exemplary); I read her books for her characters, especially the relationship between the characters. By the end of the first chapter I already felt the bond between the twins, and my heart was broken by Bay’s betrayal. I had an inkling that Bay wasn’t just trying to hurt Rio; still, I wanted to know why she left and why she never warned Rio about her actions.
Having experienced such a recent a deep betrayal, Rio isn’t about to easily trust anyone else—not her aunt Maire, a siren rumored to have killed her sister, Rio’s mother. Nor is Rio simply going to hand her heart over to the handsome and talented crafter True, a boy who claims together they can find out why their closest companions decided a life above without giving their loved ones any warning.
Like many dystopian novels, Rio discovers that what she’s been taught about her world is not exactly reliable. What sets Atlantia apart, however, is the emotional journey, and how Rio’s relationship to others—and Atlantia—evolve. Atlantia is hopeful without being naïve, beautiful without being simple.
Josie is your typical nerd and honor student, except not typical at all, as she is poised to accept the National Physics Honors Award.
But her seventeenth birthday is Grade-A Awful. Her boyfriend Tate dumps her, her dad can’t be bothered to come home, and Josie has come down with a virus that makes her want to throw up. On top of that, she’s the same age as her older brother was when he died in a car accident, and she will never stop missing him.
Things start to look up when a boy named Reid shows up on the first day of school, looking just as hot under the motorcycle helmet as Josie pictured him. Soon, Josie learns that she can bend reality with her thoughts alone, and her life will never be the same.
Based on the blurb, I thought Anomaly was going to be a blast to read—Josie makes Star Wars references, and actually sounds like she’s ready to have fun with her own newfound abilities. Unfortunately, the book was a bit of an uneven mess. Sure, there are some funny Star Wars analogies; when Tate breaks up with her in front of others, Josie describes to us how that feels (keep in mind all quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change):
I felt like I was wearing Princess Leia’s buns at a Star Trek convention.
As Josie later explains:
I threw myself into movies and books even more than I had before Nick [her brother] died. I find comfort in fiction—it’s safe. I can lose myself and find myself in books.
More often than not, however, most nerdy references are just thoughtless throwaways. Josie wears tight Star Wars shirts that turn Reid on; Josie likes saying, “for the love of Khan” or “I’d bet the USS Enterprise…”; Reid calls Josie “Spock” when she’s being smart, etc. Nothing particularly clever.
The hugest disappointment was how Josie wasn’t nearly as fun as I thought she’d be. I understand that shock and doubt may be the most reasonable responses to huge, world-altering revelations, but if we’re already dealing with people who can form objects out of thin air, I’d prefer we drop the pretense of realism (and not trying to explain the phenomenon with pseudo physics).
I can also only handle so many emo teens who lament how they are Curse with Awesome; I am pretty much at my limit. And if one must be emo, I’d want her to be more eloquent than this:
The agony and despair bored a non-repairable hold in my heart. There was no filling it.
Josie compares her training with Reid to The Empire Strikes Back Dagobah training scenes. Indeed, that’s what the bulk of the book consists of: training scenes. This is the whole of Anomaly comprising of Star Wars scenes: (1) Luke finding out he possesses the Force in A New Hope (Josie finding out she has superpowers), (2) Luke training with Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back (Josie training with Reid, so imagine a sexy Yoda taking all the time in the world to train Luke as they flirt but try to be serious but can’t help flirting again), and then (3) the Ewoks fighting the stormtroopers in Return of the Jedi (some silly action scenes at the very end).
Have you ever noticed while watching a tv show, nothing particularly exciting is going on, but the camera is swirling and moving around to help build tension? That’s how most of the action scenes felt. People are running around, shifting appearances, creating guns from scratch, but none of it felt compelling. Not enough time was spent building up the stakes; instead, it was training scene after training scene where Josie and Reid more or less ogled each other.
Anomaly held a lot of promise. In particular, although Josie and Reid seem like they’re in “insta-love” or at least “insta-attraction,” there’s good reason for it. Part of it’s because Josie inadvertently wields her superpowers to turn Reid into having an appearance that is most attractive to her. The other part I won’t spoil, but I did like the two together.
The twists and turns of the book could have been fun, too, had the book’s pacing evened out a little more.
So, this being the first book of the Schrodinger’s Consortium series, there’s room for improvement and growth. The premise is promising, but I’ll need a more focused plot and fewer whiny teens in the follow-up adventures.
I received a digital review copy of the book via NetGalley, courtesy of Entangled Teen.
Five friends party in the woods and find a mysterious pair of binoculars. When they look into it, they see visions. Riley sees himself with Sarah, his best friend Trip’s girlfriend. Natalie sees her father dead, blood splattered everywhere. Tannis sees herself hiking with her future children. Trip sees nothing. Sarah keeps her visions a secret.
Then Natalie’s vision comes true—her father is murdered, and Natalie finds his body just as she saw in the binoculars. Will everyone else’s visions come true?
Flashforward is one of my favorite Robert J. Sawyer novels (in case you’re wondering, it only shares its premise with the series with the same title). I thought This Is How It Ends would be a young adult version of Flashforward, and I was excited to read it. The premise is similar, for sure, and anyone who has read Flashforward (or even watched the show) will know what some of the visions—or lack thereof—mean. But This Is How It Ends falls painfully short.
The murder mystery takes precedence over the visions of the future. While the visions aren’t irrelevant, the murder mystery itself is unexciting. Teens solve mysteries in young adult novels all the time, but the setup here is a bit far-reaching. They learn at school how to analyze blood splatters—I’m sure any teenager would love to take that class, but it strains credulity that a teacher would be willing to teach little Dexter would-bes.
The visions of the future are treated like an afterthought, when that is the very premise that drew me to read this book. And while it wasn’t unexpected that some of the characters figured out the phenomenon in Flashforward—the protagonists were CERN scientists, after all—I did not expect any explanations from This Is How It Ends. When we do get an explanation for the binoculars, it’s unexpected, unsatisfying, and bizarre.
A lot of potential is wasted here, and it’s too bad—we could have used a young adult Flashforward, but instead we got a lukewarm murder mystery with a random supernatural component.
A soldier known only as Breq is on the last part of preparing for her quest. To others, she seems like a Radchaai, but in reality Breq is the last surviving ancillary of the spaceship, Justice of Toren. In Radchaai history, many of its ships had “ancillaries”—prisoners of war whose bodies were appropriated to install a ship’s artificial intelligence. One ship would have many, many ancillaries that helped maintain it and act as the ship’s eyes, ears, and hands.
Outside a tavern, lying facedown and naked in the snow, is Seivarden Vendaai, a past lieutenant who served aboard the Justice of Toren almost a thousand years ago. Breq recognizes her, and though Seivarden was never a favorite of Breq’s, Breq decides to save her life. This is how Breq—Justice of Toren—remembers Seivarden:
Seivarden—so young then, still slight, dark hair, brown skin, and brown eyes unremarkable, unlike the aristocratic lines of her face, including a nose she hadn’t quite grown into yet. Nervous, yes, left in charge here just days after arriving, but also proud of herself and her sudden, small authority. Proud of that dark-brown uniform jacket, trousers, and gloves, that lieutenant’s insignia. And, I thought, a tiny bit too excited at holding an actual gun in what certainly wasn’t a training exercise.
Seivarden’s a liability, though—hooked on hef, Seivarden’s addict behavior, as well as her refusal to leave Breq’s side, thwarts Breq’s own quest.
Having read a slew of great science fiction books lately, I keep craving more. With the release of Ancillary Sword, I thought I’d give last year’s Nebula and Hugo award-winning (among many, many more awards) novel a shot. I am in love.
A lot of discussions focus on the gender pronoun usage in Ancillary Justice. The Radchaai refer to both genders as “she,” regardless of biology:
Radchaai don’t care much about gender, and the language they speak—my own first language—doesn’t mark gender in any way. This language we were speaking now did, and I could make trouble for myself if I used the wrong forms. It didn’t help that cues meant to distinguish gender changed from place to place, sometimes radically, and rarely made much sense to me.
Far from being confusing, I found this approach to be refreshing: people are who they are, regardless of gender. As it was hard for Breq, our narrator, to make such distinctions, it made little sense for us to do so either. I myself chose to picture everyone as female (despite knowing that Seivarden is male), and I don’t have a problem with that.
The other often-discussed topic is that the book’s protagonist is a ship. That’s just awesome, and the collective, concurrent points-of-view during flashbacks are deftly handled. Why ships have feelings is also plausibly explained:
Without feelings insignificant decisions become excruciating attempts to compare endless arrays of inconsequential things. It’s just easier to handle those with emotions.
While Justice of Toren never liked Seivarden much, she felt very differently about the now deceased Lieutenant Awn. At its heart, or at least what I loved most about the book, this story is a revenge tale that stems from a tragic love story between a ship and her captain. Let me repeat, this is a revenge tale that stems from a tragic love story between a ship and her captain. As the tale unfolds, we learn from flashbacks what happened between the two, why Breq is now only Breq and not Justice of Toren, and what exactly Breq plans on doing.
Ancillary Justice not only explores what it feels like to have multiple bodies, it also asks the fascinating follow-up questions. What happens when one body is cut off from the rest? Does she become someone new? Is she incomplete, and if so, can she ever be whole?
I’m jumping on the Ancillary Justice bandwagon a bit late, but count me in for the remaining two books in the Imperial Radch trilogy.
Matt Watney is botanist and engineer of the Ares 3 crew, part of a Martian expedition that goes wrong on the sixth day. After an accident in a harsh sandstorm, Watney is left presumed dead on Mars. He’s not, though, and so he formulates a plan to survive and to figure out how to inform his colleagues on Earth that he’s still alive.
That’s a difficult task, given that the communications dish was torn from its foundation and the antenna the tool that pierced Watney’s suit in the first place. But Watney soldiers on, one Martian day (a “sol”) at a time.
The Martian is MacGyver meets Cast Away. The Cast Away part was why I procrastinated on reading this for so long—I didn’t think that one person could keep my interest. I was wrong, however, on two counts. First, while The Martian is primarily told through Watney’s log entries, we also see the story progress with other characters, including his crewmates on their return trip to Earth, as well as through the NASA crew. Second, Watney is wildly entertaining:
I can’t wait till I have grandchildren. “When I was younger, I had to walk to the rim of a crater. Uphill! In an EVA suit! On Mars, ya little shit! Ya hear me? Mars!”
We even get an arc for the development of Martian beverages. First:
I started the day with a potato. I washed it down with some Martian coffee. That’s my name for “hot water with a caffeine pill dissolved in it.” I ran out of real coffee months ago.
I started the day with some nothin’ tea. Nothin’ tea is easy to make. First, get some hot water, then add nothin’. I experimented with potato skin tea a few weeks ago. The less said about that the better.
As resourceful as Watney is, things go wrong. Some of it’s luck; some of it’s a result of Watney’s own oversights:
I thought a laptop would be fine outside. It’s just electronics, right? It’ll keep warm enough to operate in the short term, and it doesn’t need air for anything.
It died instantly. The screen went black before I was out of the airlock. Turns out the “L” in “LCD” stands for “Liquid.” I guess it either froze or boiled off. Maybe I’ll post a consumer review. “Brought product to surface of Mars. It stopped working. 0/10.”
While I had a sneaking suspicion that The Martian was not the kind of book that would kill off its protagonist, it’s still a thriller where I held my breath to see how Watney would deal with the challenges thrown at him. It’s hard not to cheer for such an optimistic and resourceful guy (of course he has the right to the occasional meltdown).
The Martian is hard science fiction at its most entertaining, and I highly recommend it.
Boy Novak is the daughter of a single parent, an abusive New York City rat-catcher, Frank Novak. In the winter of 1953, she escapes to the last stop on the bus line: the small town of Flax Hill, Massachusetts.
She meets a local widower, Arturo Whitman, and though their personalities clash at first, they eventually get married. Arturo’s daughter from his previous marriage, Snow, is a preternatural beauty, and at first Boy is fascinated with Snow.
But when Boy’s own daughter from Arturo, Bird, comes out dark-skinned, Boy realizes that the Whitmans are a mixed-raced family passing for white. Her protective, maternal instincts kick in, and unfortunately, that means kicking Snow out.
Boy, Snow, Bird is a story about how we see ourselves, how we perceive other people to see us, how we perceive others, how we shape our own image for others to perceive, and how all of that messes with who we’re meant to be.
Neither Snow nor Bird can fully trust mirrors, as their reflections do not always appear. In terms of appearance, the two girls are the two possibilities of Whitman offspring: one who looks white, and one who looks black. They are their own persons, but of course they cannot help but be shaped by others’ perceptions of them. For Snow, especially—she is more cherished by her extended family (all of whom are mixed raced individuals passing for white) because she not only looks white, her beauty is radiant.
Bird is in some ways oblivious to racial issues; she’s simply herself. But Bird has a different gift of mimicry—she can impersonate voices very well. It’s interesting that her talent seems limited to those who are themselves “passing.” Her voice is a vocal mirror for those who pretend to be something they are not.
I was first drawn to Boy, Snow, Bird because of the beautiful cover. The reviews from fellow bloggers were mixed, however. I became less inclined to read the book, until I saw a signed copy at a local bookstore—it was all too lovely not to be picked up. So, yes, I judged the book by its cover, by how it looked.
A lot of the discontent from reviewers stemmed from two main sources of complaint: (1) that this was not a retelling of the Snow White tale they had expected, and (2) the ending.
Indeed, Boy, Snow, Bird is not a retold fairy tale. There’s a difference between a fairy tale retelling and using it as a reference point. Boy, Snow, Bird does the latter. Ms. Oyeyemi draws on fairy tale elements to further explore the idea of perception and passing. For example, many fairy tale lovers fall in love at first sight, without having any knowledge of the personalities involved. While it helps for the men to be handsome and of royal lineage, the women must only be beautiful.
The book also draws attention to children’s idea of truth, one that aligns with the world of fairy tales. The real questions have to do with human nature. Bird asks her father:
“Is it a true story? Not the fairy godmother stuff and her dress turning back to rags at midnight—I know that’s true. But Cinderella just sweeping up all those ashes every day and never putting them into her stepmother’s food or anything—is that true?”
Certainly, if you read Boy, Snow, Bird expecting a fairy tale retelling, you may be disappointed. Heck, you may even be disappointed if you’re expecting a tale regarding 1950’s race relations—it’s certainly set in that backdrop, but the examinations are at once more personal and more ambitious in scope. Race is not the only issue; it’s personal identity.
As for the ending: (view spoiler)[ Readers were upset that Boy’s father, Frank Novak, turned out to have been born a woman, Frances Novak. The complaints included the following sentiments: (a) the last-minute reveal came suddenly and out of left field; (b) the rat-catcher decided to become a man after being raped, which perpetuates a myth about transgendered people; and (c) the ending is “insulting” in that it ends with Boy deciding to visit his father, hoping to convince the rat-catcher that he is a woman. I’ll address each complaint in turn. First, the reveal may be unexpected, but it does not come out of left field. At the very least, this was a meticulously-planned twist. There’s something very different about Boy—she’s the only main character in her extended family who is not “passing” (and the only person whose voice Bird cannot imitate), but there’s still something very “off” about her.
The fact that Boy never had a mother contributed to her own unease and inability to be a stepmother to Snow. Her strange name is also explained—Frances grew to hate men, and she believed that her baby was evil and fed off others’ misery; hence, the name “Boy.”
Boy spends a good portion of the book quietly resenting the fact that her husband “passed” as white. The ending is therefore meant to be a world-altering moment for Boy, and a reminder that there are other things that people all try to “pass” for, not just color.
Second, while the perpetuation of a transgender myth may be the most problematic of the complaints, I believe Boy, Snow, Bird handles it appropriately in this context. Nothing about the book is “preachy”—not even regarding race relations. Instead, the book is a rumination about personal identity and “passing,” of which gender-passing is a form. While rape was a factor, so were the societal expectations of a woman versus those of a man.
Fundamentally, I believe this feels problematic to readers because one of the bigger, sticky transgender issues is whether a transgendered person is “born” or “made.” Call to mind the Lady Gaga anthem, “Born This Way.” There’s an idea that if we’re born a certain way, there should be no blame, and acceptance is in order. If any volition is brought into the equation, there’s a danger that one may be accused of being mentally unstable, of making questionable choices, or being reactionary.
Yet, I hope that one day as a society we progress even further. We are all individuals with different self-awareness. Some people realize who they are sooner than others. That certain individuals may discover their true gender later in life (keeping in mind that life experiences inevitably shape us all) should be no excuse to discount their discovery. Nor should their stories be dismissed as “dangerous” or “unhelpful.”
That so many reviewers have identified this as a potential problem already gives me hope; this may not have been identified as such a decade ago.
Lastly, as to Boy’s reaction, to travel back to the city and convince Frank he’s a woman—that may be insulting, but this is only Boy’s perspective, not the message of the book. It’s merely the first step in Boy’s journey to discover who she is.
In terms of what’s “right” and “wrong,” Boy has certainly proved throughout the book to have made questionable—if not outright, morally wrong—decisions. In no way does the book portray Boy’s quest as the “right” reaction. When Boy demands that Mia stop referring to Frank as “him,” Mia responds, “I don’t know that I can.” Even Arturo at first forbids Boy to do so, then warns her. Boy’s quest to meet her “mother” will itself probably be highly unsuccessful, but the point is, Boy finally has a starting point to discover more about herself. Even if the likely result is that she’ll be without real answers, and will have to do the hard work herself. (hide spoiler)]
While none of the reviews I read explicitly spoiled the book for me, it wasn’t hard to guess the ending once the reviewers identified the types of issues that they thought plagued the ending. I do think that having read the criticisms beforehand helped me enjoy the book more, so it’s up to you whether you want to read the spoilers above before reading the book. Either way, I’d recommend reading Boy, Snow, Bird.
Arthur Leander, a famous actor, falls dead from a heart attack as he plays the title character of King Lear. Kirsten Raymonde, a child actress who plays a young version of one of the king’s daughters as part of a hallucination scene, stands by and watches in horror as Arthur dies.
That very night, a mysterious and deadly flu starts spreading like wildfire, and ninety percent of the world’s population is dead within weeks.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is part of the Traveling Symphony, a small troupe that travels from settlement to settlement performing Shakespeare (they’ve tried different playwrights, but Shakespeare seems universally preferred). The roads are dangerous, but the troupe does what it does because it believes in its own motto, an appropriate line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” Of course, the actors also love what they do:
The audience rose for a standing ovation. Kirsten stood in the state of suspension that always came over her at the end of performances, a sense of having flown very high and landed incompletely, her soul pulling upward out of her chest.
When the troupe reaches St. Deborah by the Water, hoping to meet up with former members who had to settle down because of a newborn, they are greeted with unwelcome news: no one will reveal the whereabouts of the former members. A dangerous, self-proclaimed “prophet” has also taken over the town, forcing young girls to marry him, and killing anyone who leaves the town without permission.
Station Eleven is not as hopeless as Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the “prophet” doesn’t quite reach the outrageous levels of villainy of The Walking Dead’s Governor (though admittedly that’s a high bar to reach). It’s not the aim of the book to be insular, nor to become a survival thriller or horror, though the horror does lurk about.
Instead, Station Eleven is an appreciation of human connections, an elegy for those who are no longer with us, but who live on in memories or through their life’s work.
Hell is the absence of the people you long for.
Even the survivors’ attachments to objects or things are about the objects’ significance in the past, a yearning for past connections. For us to fully understand those connections here, as many alternating chapters are set in the past as they are in the post-apocalyptic future.
I am a huge fan of e-books; e-books help hide my hoarding habit. I usually get the e-book version of a book first, but I’ve also been collecting physical copies of books I like. It’s a guard against a powerless apocalypse: even if the grid goes down, I’ll still have my favorite books to cherish forever (this won’t necessarily hold true in the case of a fiery apocalypse, in which case the books may just add more fuel to the fire). So the usual drill is to get the e-book, and also buy a hard copy if I really like the book.
Station Eleven was an outlier, a book that led me to break my routine. I had the e-book and had not yet read it. I was at the local bookstore to attend my monthly science fiction/fantasy book club meeting. We had gotten to the point where we were just casually chatting. At some point, our organizer, for one reason or another, fetched this book for someone else to look at. Then it just sat on the table, abandoned, beckoning me to touch it. I opened the book, saw that it was autographed, and I bought the copy on impulse.
If the apocalypse comes, I’ll still have my Station Eleven. Because survival is insufficient.
Sean Phillips is more or less a recluse after a disfiguring incident. He crafts the game “Trace Italian,” a post-apocalyptic, text-based, role-playing game played in turns through snail mail. As Andrew Wetzel of The Masters Review explains, “think of it like a choose-your-own-adventure version of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.”
Sean is taken to trial after one of his teenage player accidentally kills herself enacting the game; her companion suffers from serious injuries but lives.
Wolf in White Van is told in reverse chronological order, à la Memento. That each chapter also contains memories and flashbacks makes it no small feat to try and follow the present. It’s like struggling to make sense of someone else’s brain that happens to be rewinding itself.
The phrase “wolf in white van” itself is what you hear when you hear the lyrics “we served at his table and slept on the floor” from Larry Norman’s “Six, Sixty, Six” played backwards. As for hidden messages, Sean himself ponders:
What I’d meant to ask her was why the devil would talk backwards: why he didn’t just get his message out directly, by speaking clearly, straight into the brains of the people he knew he could win over. To me this was obviously the most important question about the whole thing, because the devil’s process as they’d described it sounded like a lot of hard work for almost no gain.
I’ve categorized this book as a “mystery”—it’s not your typical mystery; instead, the question is, what do we learn from this story when told backwards? Like Sean’s question regarding the devil, why not present the story clearly, in a chronological order?
Sean’s own situation seems inspired by the lawsuit against Judas Priest. The band’s manager, Bill Curbishley was quoted for saying, “I don’t know what subliminals are, but I do know there’s nothing like that in this music. If we were going to do that, I’d be saying, ‘Buy seven copies,’ not telling a couple of screwed-up kids to kill themselves.”
But there is power in the mysterious. If the devil were to say, “Give me your soul,” that could be easily dismissed, or laughed off. How much creepier is the message when it’s something cryptic like “wolf in white van”? Something like that invades your thoughts, commands your continued attention, and maybe that’s all the devil wants: your time, your focus.
While I don’t dispute that record companies and bands don’t want fans to take their own lives, the very promise of messages in reverse helps sell records, regardless of the actual content of the messages.
To get to the message of the book then, first I will take a detour on a “side quest”: I am one of those people who regularly reads materials at the end of the book—“About the Author,” “Acknowledgments,” etc. Here, Mr. Darnielle wants you to know that as the frontman of the band The Mountain Goats, “[h]e is widely considered one of the best lyricists of his generation.” The best lyricist, of course, is Weird Al, though no one has petitioned the White House that Weird Al be named Poet Laureate of the United States (Flavorwire and Deadspin, however, have respectively called him “America’s poet laureate of musical parody,” and “America’s Middle-School Poet Laureate for 35 years running”), nor has Sasha Frere-Jones of The New Yorker dubbed Weird Al “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” These accolades can really get to one’s head. Or there’s some sort of irony here I’m missing because I’m less hip than someone more than a decade older than me, or this is a punishing put-down for not paying enough attention to Mountain Goats lyrics. Because I haven’t.
Never before have I taken offense at an “About the Author” section, but I did here. I was already reeling from the ending, where my initial reaction was, “That’s it?” The “best lyricist” line, presented on the following page, seemed to taunt me: “Unsatisfied with the ending?” it said. “Well, it’s you, not me, ’cause I’m one of the best lyricists of my generation.”
I suppose I was quite tired and stayed up a little later than I intended to finish the book.
Open-ended endings that “make you think” often stir an internal debate. I get suspicious. Is it truly the best type of ending because of the themes in the book? Or is the author just stuck, hoping by leaving things unresolved we ooooo and we ahhhh and call it a masterpiece?
Ultimately, Wolf in White Van did stick with me, it having told the story in reverse as it did. As Sean states:
It’s hard to overstate how deep the need can get for things to make sense.
And so I toiled to make sense of it all.
Sean’s options in life are few, so he gets to play the omnipotent in “Trace Italian.” Of course the players never see all the possibilities, only their own fates based on their own decisions. These decisions, of course, are all preordained options planned in advance by Sean himself.
Moving back in time, however, we see how it was the very nature of open possibilities, daunting as they are, that led to Sean’s current situation. He needs certainty. As the god of “Trace Italian,” the players have some small measure of choice, but even Sean is in control of their choices. When players surprise him, when they strip him of control—whether by placing their fates in the real God in acting out the game, or taking action within the game outside of the prescribed options—it jars the very being of Sean.
Whatever he intended with “Trace Italian,” all creations take on a life of their own. When there’s underlying despair, how can an author help how a consumer receives it?
As much as I admire Wolf in the White Van, I contend that at 224 pages, the book is neither short enough nor long enough. It could have packed more punch as a novella, novelette, or short story. On the other hand, I could also imagine a much longer tome that really explores more details, let us live in Sean’s mind for even longer, such that we’d find it difficult to untangle ourselves.
Richard Walker, patriarch of the Walker clan, has passed away. For his funeral, his family returns: his estranged wife, Caroline, his reclusive son, Trenton, his sex-addict daughter, Minna, and Minna’s daughter, Amy. The ghosts of the house, Alice and Sandra, observe, and sometimes do more than just observe.
As each person (or ghost) tells their stories, we find out that no one’s narration may be particularly reliable.
After the debacle that was Panic, it’s nice to see Lauren Oliver back in form with Rooms. We have all the trademark poeticism paired with the teenage angst exhibiting itself in full awkwardness:
Trenton wanted to laugh, but his face was frozen. A high whine, like the noise of a cornered animal, worked its way out of the back of his throat.
This being Ms. Oliver’s first foray outside of young adult fiction, the angst now translates onto adults and even ghosts:
Or maybe it’s life that is the infection: a feverish dream, a hallucination of feelings. Death is purification, a cleansing, a cure.
There’s denial of truth in the form of conveyed memories, more powerful in adults and the dead than could be experienced by a teenager with only limited years:
Memory is as thick as mud. It rises up, it overwhelms. It sucks you down and freezes you where you stand.
Thrash and kick and gnash your teeth. There’s no escaping it.
In Georgia, the mud was thick and dark as oil.
Ms. Oliver, however, hasn’t abandoned all the food analogies and her obsession with the derrière:
I can feel her, wound up tight, like a soda about to explode, like clenched butt cheeks.
(And if the soda is about to explode, is there something we’re clenching back here?) Sometimes the analogies make less sense as they drag on:
I liked the way the vegetables were all laid out like jewelry in a velvet-lined case: cabbages tucked neatly next to shiny red peppers next to cucumbers next to lettuce, all of it misted over, regular, with a fine spray of water.
The vegetable-jewelry comparison is nice, but when she starts mentioning the mists and sprays of water, I’m wondering what that has to do with jewelry.
In any case, now that we have the beautiful prose back, I’m starting to feel disappointed in Ms. Oliver’s muted storylines. There’s a beauty in the small things, the mundane. But when you start bringing in ghosts and hinting at buried secrets, expectations build for more impactful reveals.
Maybe it’s that in this post Gone Girl world, newly released books have to constantly up the stakes to fulfill ever-rising expectations. What was heavy metal in the ‘70’s now sounds so tame. The ante goes up, up, up. So when I learned the secrets these people and ghosts have been hiding, I thought, “So what?”
Even if the surprise element doesn’t quite work, there’s the character-driven approach where we learn new insights from old problems. Unfortunately, Rooms, told through six different points of view, simply did not have time to develop any of the characters as deeply as needed to make this story work.
So, I think I am officially quitting Lauren Oliver books for now. Thanks for the lovely language, but I need more.
When the nation’s leading physicists commit suicide within a few months, the Chinese military and police forces recruit Wang Miao, a nanomaterials researcher, to assist them in infiltrating the Frontiers of Science.
When Wang discovers that a contact from Frontiers of Science has been playing an immersive video game titled “Three Body,” he decides to play for himself. What he discovers is nothing short of mind-blowing.
Here’s how much I love this book: If you only read one book in your lifetime, please let it be The Three-Body Problem. “One book” may be too restrictive, however. According to translator Ken Liu (whose own novel, The Grace of Kings, will be released next year in April 2015), Death’s End, the third book in the Three Body series, is “the best one.” That blows my mind—how does one best The Three-Body Problem? I guess I’ll find out in 2016—or earlier if I can will myself to read the Chinese version. (It may actually take longer; my Chinese reading skills are that rusty.)
The Three-Body Problem is hard science fiction, but it didn’t become a phenomenon in China for lack of accessibility. In explaining the “farmer” hypothesis involving the fundamental nature of the laws of the universe, we learn (keep in mind all quotes are from an ARC; the final versions may differ):
Every morning on a turkey farm, the farmer comes to feed the turkeys. A scientist turkey, having observed this pattern to hold without change for almost a year, makes the following discovery: “Every morning at eleven, food arrives.” On the morning of Thanksgiving, the scientist announces this law to the other turkeys. But that morning at eleven, food doesn’t arrive; instead, the farmer comes and kills the entire flock.
One can only advance in the “Three Body” game if one first identifies the problem and then solves it. Each time Wang advanced in levels, the revelations brought chills. Speaking of chills, I quaked hardest during first contact (given the official book descriptions, this isn’t a spoiler).
In our real world, advances in solutions for the three-body problem were made in 2013. I have no science background, so I am unsure of whether the science in this book, originally published in Chinese in 2006, is still up-to-date. Regardless, The Three-Body Problem is everything hard science fiction should be, and its themes are important enough to transcend genres and labels.
Though science and its consequences are in the foreground, there’s also prose to appreciate:
This period condensed in her memory into a series of classical paintings—not Chinese brush paintings but European oil paintings. Chinese brush paintings are full of blank spaces, but life in Qijiatun had no blank spaces. Like classical oil paintings, it was filled with thick, rich, solid colors.
And so I should also give props for the translation. Ken Liu noted in the Translator’s Postscript:
The best translations into English do not, in fact, read as if they were originally written in English. The English words are arranged in such a way that the reader sees a glimpse of another culture’s patterns of thinking, hears an echo of another language’s rhythms and cadences, and feels a tremor of another people’s gestures and movements.
I have not read the Chinese version of this book, but Ken Liu did a great job of capturing the feel of reading the Chinese language.
It’s strange to end a review with thank-you notes, but this book is life-changing. I have to thank not only the author, Cixin Liu, for writing such an amazing book, but also Tor, Ken Liu, and Joel Martinsen for making it accessible for English-language readers. I don’t keep track of international literature, so I wouldn’t have even known this book existed if not for this translation.
Preorder The Three-Body Problem today. You will be missing out if you don’t read it. If you’re one of my friends, be forewarned that I will hound you until you do.
I received a digital review copy of the book via Netgalley, courtesy of Tor.
Dai has 18 days to execute his plan and get out of the Walled City forever. His plan needs a runner, though, and so he recruits Jin, a small boy who can outrun anyone.
Little does Dai know that Jin is actually a girl in disguise. Jin came to the Walled City to find her sister, Mei Yee, whom their father sold to a brothel to satisfy his thirst for alcohol.
Meanwhile, Dai also recruits Mei Yee to spy on her boss at the brothel, not knowing the connection between Mei Yee and Jin.
But you know what they say about the best laid plans, let alone ones as risky as Dai’s.
The Walled City was inspired by the Kowloon Walled City—it’s about time more and more books draw inspiration from Asian cities, so this setting is refreshing. We also get a lot of culturally appropriate similes and metaphors (keep in mind all quotes are from an ARC; final versions may differ):
My emotions are like pounds of overcooked rice noodles. Spilling everywhere. Impossible to gather back together again.
* * *
Dai’s yell isn’t very loud, but it sets me on edge. He’s always so calm and even-keeled. Like a paper boat set in a shallow puddle.
* * *
Hail. It tears and claws. Rattles against the rooftop. The nightingales are shrieking now. The potted plants shred instead of wilt. Clothes drop from the lines like autumn leaves.
The prose is absolutely beautiful. The book begins with a sense of urgency:
There are three rules of survival in the Walled City: Run fast. Trust no one. Always carry your knife.
Right now, my life depends completely on the first.
Run, run, run.
Unfortunately, as the story progresses, passages that are beautiful but too introspective start appearing in situations too urgent for such poeticism. The pacing suffers accordingly.
That’s not the only thing affecting the pacing. The characters keep each other in the dark, and the mysteries unravel with time. The problem is, sometimes we know a lot more than the characters do about certain things—such as Jin and Mei Yee’s relationship and Jin’s true gender. There’s nothing wrong with that per se, but as others in the story learn of these facts, what should be big reveals instead feel anticlimactic.
The Walled City is told from three perspectives: Jin’s, Dai’s, and Mei Yee’s. Jin’s is the most interesting, followed by Dai. Mei Yee is by far the most frustrating. Though she mostly does what the story requires of her, she is annoyingly passive:
I want to scream, but I can’t find my voice.
When she should keep her mouth shut, she instead blabs stupidly to people she shouldn’t. I understand that not every female character can be feisty, but I’d rather not have to continuously eyeroll at a character’s choices. I found myself wishing for a lot more Jin and Dai.
The Walled City is still worth the read, but the pacing and perspectives could have used some tightening.
I received a digital review copy of the book via Netgalley, courtesy of Little, Brown.
Especially during its ascendancy, each of four stars lend power to those who are able to channel its power: Para (weather manipulation, including using air as shields), Tira (healing powers, control of plant-based life forms), Sina (unmaking flesh, flame-calling), and Oma (opening gateways. raising the dead).
Oma is rising, and so mirrors formed with blood magic open the gates to an alternate realm. The two connected worlds are at bloody war. Women and men who least expect to play a role find themselves in the midst of war, and even those who have a hand in the war find themselves questioning their loyalties.
Lilia crossed the worlds at a young age, pushed through by a mother trying to save her daughter from certain death. Lilia’s quest to find her mother’s double in this new world may prove key to saving both. And Taigan—a gender-changing assassin—will try to train Lilia to use powers she has never accessed before.
After his sister Kirana’s death, Akhio finds himself leader of the Dhai—as the leaders have traditionally been women, Ahkio has to not only prove himself individually but also as a man.
Zezili, a ruthless female captain general of the Dorinah’s forces, is charged with exterminating the daijian—enslaved Dhai people. But even her ruthlessness has limits when she discovers why she was assigned such a role.
The Mirror Empire was a difficult book for me to get through at first; its glossary boasts close to two-hundred terms and names. A lot of science fiction and fantasy books include invented terms, but usually the terms are either few, or are based on the existing English language such that you can figure them out, or easily remember what they stand for.
Here, character names, aside from those mentioned above, include Anavha, Ahya, Ghrasia, Rohinmey, among many, many more. “Catori” is the title used for the spouse of the “Kai.” A “Kai” is an honorific used for the leader of the “Dhai” people. “Dhai” is a small country located on the northwest corner of the island of “Grania,” and so on and so forth. Thankfully, you can find Dhai on the map provided in the beginning of the book, but not all locations discussed were even on the map. This was all very disorienting for me.
At around the 60% mark, I gave up turning to the glossary every few seconds, and decided just to finish the book unaided—unknown or unremembered terms be damned. I cannot be sure I’ve understood the book as deeply as I hoped, but if not easily accessible, The Mirror Empire sure is interesting and thought-provoking. The worldbuilding was fantastic and intricate.
Some characters inhabit both worlds as different versions of themselves. The most interesting revelation is this: If a person exists in her own universe, then her alternate self—if such an alternate self exists—cannot cross over. Thus, if you do have a double, she must be eliminated.
I’ve written before about how I feel about parallel universes. The explanations given here were enough for me to suspend any disbelief, though I did have lingering questions. For example, how different do you have to be from your double for the two of you not to be considered the same person for purposes of traveling through the gates?
Questions aside, I enjoyed learning about these different worlds. From one of the training scenes, where Taigan explains to Lilia how to unravel wards:
“This is like being blind,” Lilia said. “I can’t see any of these things.”
“Work harder,” Taigan said.
“Would you tell me to work harder to see if I was blind?”
“Better to say that you should not be surprised to be blind if you continue to close your eyes.”
The most rewarding aspect of The Mirror Empire, however, is its exploration of sexuality and gender politics:
Roh was used to Dhai, where everyone chose what gender they went by. He wondered, for the first time, who had decided Luna was not “he” or “she” but “ze.”
Roles traditionally relegated to men in fantasy are occupied by women; women are the political and military leaders. When men, such as Ahkio, come into power, he is doubted by many. Men are also sometimes portrayed more meekly here, or in need of rescuing by women:
He slept because he could dream when he slept—dream he was a pirate like the ones that pillaged slaves from the Dhai coast, or the man in one of the romance novels Zezili’s sister Taodalain bought for him, saved from assassins and kidnappers by a handsome legion commander like Zezili.
But he would be a man traveling alone. Someone would stop him, ask for his papers, his chaperone. He might be able to pass as a woman, though, if he wore a coat and hood, left the girdle behind…
That the above passages seem almost ridiculous makes the reader question why such reading similar passages about women shouldn’t be seen as similarly absurd. This tension holds especially true when we can exercise all the imagination in the world to create other worlds, as Ms. Hurley demonstrates by painstakingly constructing the Kingdoms of Grania.
The empires in The Mirror Empire aren’t merely mirror images of each other but also the world we live in now. It’s refreshing to see more social commentary and criticism appear in fantasy—something more traditionally reserved for science fiction. It certainly doesn’t hurt that The Mirror Empire also tells an engaging and epic tale. As long as you’re prepared to put in a bit of work learning these new worlds, you’re in for a compelling read.
You know that feeling you get when you watch an incredibly awesome movie for the first time? You watch that same movie over and over, but you’re never able to replicate that original rush in full force. You wish that you could forget the movie, just so you can experience the First Time again.
Well, I experienced something like the First Time again with The Heart Does Not Grow Back. As much as I loved The Samaritan, due to the number of books I’ve read since 2011 (and my terrible memory in general), I forgot much of the plot. In addition, The Heart Does Not Grow Back had been rewritten in parts and expanded upon. I only remembered details from The Samaritan as I was reading The Heart Does Not Grow Back, so I felt every punch like the first time. It was exhilarating.
Now, the book itself.
Dale Sampson grew up being a nobody. But one day in sixth grade, popular jock Mack decides he’ll be Dale’s best friend, and so best friends they become. That doesn’t change Dale’s personality, and though he’s granted an air of mystique by being Mack’s friend, picking up girls doesn’t get any easier for him: (Please note that all quotes are from an ARC and are subject to change. But they are too good not to be included here.)
“You never miss,” I said.
“I only batted .650 last year, so—”
“No, with girls. You’ve always got your pick of the litter. You never miss.”
He smiled and picked up my bat. “You never swing.”
When Mack rescues Dale from isolation and obscurity, if not awkwardness, their bond is one that should last forever. Before they can graduate from high school, however, tragedy strikes. And through that tragedy, Dale discovers that his body parts regenerate rather quickly:
Three days later, my fingers were back, my ear was whole, and the only reminder of those cuts that remained was a new set of white lines tracing the border between who I am and who I used to be.
Things can never be the same again, and Dale spirals into depression.
Call suicide what you want, but a cowardly act, it is not. If you’re not blowing your brains out, you’re dying by neglect. You’re ignoring that suspicious mole, or smoking, or cultivating that roll of belly fat, or eating too much sodium, or fucking without a condom, or snorting coke, or driving without a seat belt.
Simply put, some deaths are acceptable because everyone loves salt, but most can’t stand the taste of a gun barrel.
When Dale runs into a girl from the past, he becomes motivated enough to pull himself out of his emotional ditch. He decides to pitch a reality show where he donates his body parts and organs to those who need them; Hollywood bites and bites hard.
What starts out as a decent idea grows dangerous when Dale pushes his body to its limits. Nor is self-redemption as easy a task as it would seem, not even for the world’s most famous organ donor.
Melancholy has never been more poetic as it is in The Heart Does Not Grow Back. Dale literally gives himself away to have a chance to feel love—not just romantic love, but self-love. This desperation takes on such a voracious appetite that it’s hard for readers’ hearts not to go out to this guy. As depressing as this may sound, it is precisely Dale’s renewed lust for life that sustains hope and inspires us to root for him. He admits his own selfish motives to the reader, and that honesty, even though it reveals thoughts that are less than altruistic, makes Dale more relatable and sympathetic.
After I finished The Heart Does Not Grow Back, I went back and reread portions of The Samaritan. In 2011, I had thought The Samaritan to be near perfect. With The Heart Does Not Grow Back, Mr. Venturini has fleshed out that original premise and has delivered a tale that packs even more of an emotional impact.
Here’s to hoping that with this new Picador version, The Heart Does Not Grow Back, finally gets the attention this story deserves.
I received a review copy of the book courtesy of Picador and TLC Book Tours.
Colin Thatcher is enigmatic and handsome enough to win over Mia Dennett as she sulks at the bar, waiting for a boyfriend who may or may not show up. But when she follows him home, she soon realizes that she’s about to be kidnapped for a huge ransom demand at her father, a prominent Chicago judge.
Instead of handing Mia to his boss, Dalmar, however, Colin has a change of heart and hides with Mia in a secluded cabin in Minnesota instead. Meanwhile, Detective Gabe Hoffman and Mia’s mother, Eve Dennett, are working hard to uncover any clues as to Mia’s whereabouts.
As the story unfolds in a nonlinear fashion, we find out that Mia is eventually reunited with her family, but not without significant trauma and selective amnesia. Past and present converge as we discover what truly happened to Mia while she was kidnapped.
I first happened upon The Good Girl at the library, and I was drawn to the cover. (The cover is a bit misleading—while Mia has striking blue eyes, she is not nearly as young as the girl on the cover looks.)
Later, I discovered that this book has made it onto the numerous “If you loved Gone Girl, you’ll love…” lists. The Good Girl certainly isn’t a Gone Girl copycat; in fact, the first draft was completed in 2010, well before the publication of Gone Girl in 2012. I understand that Gone Girl was a huge hit and that readers would be interested in similar books, but the very comparison gives away the existence of a twist. (On the other hand, I was so obsessed with finding that twist that I ended up looking in all the wrong places, so maybe this isn’t a bad thing.)
Standing alone, without the spoilers floating around in the world, Gone Girl is the surprise party you never expected, organized and filled with people you’re more or less civil to but actually hate. You’re impressed, however, that these self-centered, smug attendees were able to keep their mouth shut and surprise you so thoroughly. They probably threw the party to disprove a point you made earlier about how they can’t seem to keep a secret, more so than out of love for you. But you still welcome the attention, and it makes you feel dirty.
The Good Girl, on the other hand, is the surprise party thrown by your extended family. They get on your nerves enough that you more often than not ignore what they say, and you missed the clues they were dropping about your party. When you show up, they do surprise you, but you immediately think, “Oh, so that’s why so-and-so was acting this way.” Then you genuinely enjoy the party.
The clues for the twist in The Good Girl are there if you’re perceptive enough, so when it finally reveals itself, you don’t feel jerked around. You feel rewarded, instead.
The Good Girl is a riveting, moving, and unexpected treat.
It’s 1986. Park, a cool, half-Korean kid who wears nothing but black and keeps his ears in his Walkman headphones, observes the new girl, Eleanor, on the bus:
Not just new—but big and awkward. With crazy hair, bright red on top of curly. And she was dressed like…like she wanted people to look at her. Or maybe like she didn’t get what a mess she was. She had on a plaid shirt, a man’s shirt, with half a dozen weird necklaces hanging around her neck and scarves wrapped around her wrists. She reminded Park of a scarecrow or one of the trouble dolls his mom kept on her dresser. Like something that wouldn’t survive in the wild.
Eleanor can’t quite make up her mind about Park, either:
Eleanor couldn’t tell if the Asian kid who finally let her sit down was one of them [the devil-kids], or whether he was just really stupid. (But not stupid-stupid—he was in two of Eleanor’s honors classes.)
The two don’t talk at first, but one day Park sees Eleanor reading the comic books he’s reading on the bus. Park begins lending Eleanor his comic books, makes her mixed tapes, and before long, they are in love.
However, Eleanor’s home life threatens not only her relationship with Park, but also her very safety. Eleanor is bullied at school, too, and there’s only so much she and Park can do. With so much standing in their way, can Eleanor and Park’s love prevail?
For some people, exploration of the world we live in will never end, but for teenagers, that’s their entire life. The discovery of a great song, a great movie, a great book—these are highs not easily duplicated in later adulthood. When someone is responsible for introducing those life-changing things, you feel connected to them forever. And don’t you remember how your first impressions of someone can change for the better when you discover you love the same things?
When you’re a teenager, you often feel defined by your favorite music, books, movies, etc., and you tend to be closer to those people who like the same things you do.
So, when Park shares his loves with Eleanor, he opens up a whole new world for her. She returns the favor. Eleanor & Park captures the wonder of falling in love for the first time. Along with the wonder comes the more awkward parts, too: expressing your emotions, feeling inadequate and undeserving of the love showered your way. Then there are the really difficult issues that the book tackles, such as bullying and child abuse.
When each person has to deal with life’s more trying problems, is it possible to still grow together as a couple and to stay together? Both Park and Eleanor have to figure that out for themselves.
Eleanor & Park is heartfelt and heart-wrenching. It will speak not only to today’s youth (and introduce them to some of the best songs and bands of the 1980’s), but also to anyone who has ever been a teenager.
Clay Jannon is a web designer who loses his job when the bagel start-up he works for becomes a victim of the cruel economy. As he explains:
[I]t turns out that in a recession, people want good old-fashioned bubbly oblong bagels, not smooth alien-spaceship bagels, not even if they’re sprinkled with precision-milled rock salt.
Out of desperation, Clay applies for a job at the strange, eponymous store of the novel’s title: Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. The “Help Wanted” sign calls for “specific requirements” and thus Clay has the following thought:
I was pretty sure “24-hour bookstore” was a euphemism for something.
Turns out, he may not be far off. Patrons come in and out of the store at weird hours of the night, asking not to buy the normal books you’d expect at a bookstore, but rather to borrow a strange collection of coded books from the back shelves. Though Mr. Penumbra forbids Clay from reading this special collection, curiosity wins the day (night), and Clay is determined to decode the books.
Product placements have saturated television and movies: Iron Man craves Burger King burgers, James Bond wears Omega watches. Remember when most sports stadiums had non-corporate monikers? Now, what would happen if a corporation were to commission a novel?
I don’t believe Google had anything to do with Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, but it may as well have. The book at times alternates between being a huge Google PR campaign and a Google recruitment ad. The book ignores the more controversial aspects of Google, such as omission of the Google Books lawsuit that was eventually dismissed after the book’s publication. Given that Mr. Penumbra explores the evolution of books, from the dusty to the digital, you’d think this would warrant a mention. Instead, Mr. Sloan embraces the simplistic maxim that “Google is utopia!”
I have no insider knowledge regarding the Google workplace, but I’d wager that the fictional company Hooli from HBO’s Silicon Valley would be a more accurate portrayal of Google than Mr. Penumbra’s Google.
Google promotion aside, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was an enjoyable read, as it also embraces books of all form, typography, design, programming, technology, secret societies, the San Francisco Bay Area, and immortality.
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is one of my book club reads for this September; the other one, from a different book club, is Ready Player One, reviewed earlier this week. I was surprised at the book’s similarities: Both are dedicated to geek culture, though Mr. Penumbra also celebrates nerd culture. For both books, love for the subject matters will likely translate into love for the books.
Ready Player One is one huge quest set in the virtual reality of the future, but if you were asked to imagine what a contemporary, realistic quest would be like, Mr. Penumbra is as close as it gets, and therein lies the appeal. Make no mistake, it’s still mostly a fantasy, but it contains just the right dose of verisimilitude. (If you’re curious as to what the Gerritszoon font looks like, you’ll have to keep wondering—unlike Google, a real company, Gerritszoon is not a real font.)
Ultimately, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore is better at raising questions than answering them, and Kat, Clay’s love interest, is a nerdy, hot girl that seems more akin to a fetish or plot device than a well-developed character. I dream that one day, we’ll have a geek or nerd novel that gets the women right—both in personality and percentage of population. With the number of women writers, this is bound to happen soon, right? (If you’re aware of any, please enlighten me in the comments.)
A dedicated illusionist—a bullet catcher—lives as she performs. Elizabeth Barnabus, a woman born in a traveling circus to a bullet catcher, has masterA dedicated illusionist—a bullet catcher—lives as she performs. Elizabeth Barnabus, a woman born in a traveling circus to a bullet catcher, has mastered the illusion of being her own twin brother. As her twin brother Edwin has always graced the stage with Elizabeth, few know that Edwin has never existed.
When the Duke of Northampton set his sights on Elizabeth, she ran, and she and “Edwin” have been on the run ever since. As it would be unseemly for a woman to do so, Edwin becomes a private detective to help Elizabeth earn a living.
But cases may be scarce and payments even more scarce. So when the Dutchess of Bletchley hires Edwin to find the Dutchess’s brother and promises to pay a hefty sum of gold, Elizabeth bites. Not everything is as it seems, however, and soon, the agents of the Patent Office are after the Barnabus twins. Elizabeth will have to evade the agents, as well as deal with rogues, freaks and self-proclaimed alchemists, to solve the case.
The Bullet-Catcher’s Daughter had me at “cross-dressing detective” (also that cover art by Will Staehle), and Elizabeth Barnabus does not disappoint. She’s a resourceful heroine, but far from perfect or invincible—she’s no Mary Sue. She describes her background as such:
Illusion was my inheritance, fed to me on my mother’s lap as the drowsy rocking of the caravan and the slow rhythm of iron-shod hooves lulled me. It was a ripe strawberry conjured from the air, or a silver coin caressed from my soft cheek by the touch of a loving hand.
My main complaint is that, at times, solving the mystery is less a cohesive goal or storyline than an excuse to plop Elizabeth in one setting after another. Thankfully, each setting is unique and fun enough to maintain the momentum, to keep each adventure rollicking. As someone who regularly deals with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, I found the idea of Patent Office agents as a policing force hilarious—in a good way.
Each chapter is headed by a quote from The Bullet Catcher’s Handbook, quotes that range from the practical, to the proverbial, to the poetic:
As a bullet can be removed through a barrel breach, so can one be added. Therefore, never trust anything or anyone, or even your own self when a gun is pointing at your head.
Good advice from a book with more than a few surprises.
In the glossary, it is revealed that Elizabeth plays a part in bringing down the Gas-Lit Empire. It will be interesting to see how she achieves that in Unseemly Science, the second and last book in the Fall of the Gas-Lit Empire duology, which will be released in February 2015....more
The only world Jack knows is Room. He was born in it, and he has spent every day of his life in it.
But when Jack turns five, Ma thinks it’s time to tell him some harder-to-swallow-than-vegetable truths: That Ma hates Room. That Ma was abducted by Old Nick seven years ago against her will, and the time for escape is now. But Jack is in no rush to change the world he knows:
I still don’t understand why Old Nick being a robot means we have to do the cunning plan tonight. “Let’s do it another night.”
“OK,” says Ma, she flops down in her chair.
“Yeah.” She rubs her forehead. “I’m sorry, Jack, I know I’m rushing you. I’ve had a long time to think this through, but it’s all new to you.”
I nod and nod.
“I guess another couple of days can’t make much difference. So long as I don’t let him pick another fight.” She smiles at me. “Maybe in a couple of days?”
“Maybe when I’m six.”
Ma’s staring at me.
“Yeah, I’ll be ready to trick him and go in Outside when I’m six.”
She puts her face down on her arms.
When their escape plan works—albeit a little differently than they planned, it becomes clear that neither Jack nor Ma were prepared to face the world outside Room. (Note: This is not a spoiler considering the official book description.)
Besides reading books that fall inside my favorite genres, sometimes I’m drawn to books because of their unique perspectives. That’s how I came to read Breaking Out of Bedlam by Leslie Larson (told from the point of view of an obese elderly woman who is being forced into a home), The Girls by Lori Lansens (told from the points of view of conjoined twins), and The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon (told from the point of view of an autistic teenager). Likewise, I was drawn to Room because of Jack, a young boy who has no idea he’s a prisoner.
Telling the story from Jack’s perspective is especially refreshing—his use of language reflects not only his age, but his world view. Ma tries to correct Jack’s grammar and usage when she can, but some concepts are just completely foreign to him. For example, since Jack only ever talks to Ma (Ma prevents any interactions between Old Nick and Jack), Ma is “you.” So when he finally talks to another person, he has to struggle not to use the pronoun “you” to refer to his Ma.
No matter how horrifying the abduction/prisoner situation is, the achievement in Room is that the book depicts just how unforgiving and complicated the world is outside the Room. Of course, returning is not an option, but the world holds no easy answers.
Room manages to juggle being scary, hopeful, and confusing for its characters. Though some suspension of disbelief is required for the middle portion, Room is an observant novel that not only opened the eyes of its characters, it will open its readers’ eyes.
This isn’t a review of only Acceptance, but also the first two books of the Southern Reach Trilogy, Annihilation and Authority. Some believe that Annihilation, in particular, can be a standalone novel, and while I do not disagree, I have no idea why anyone would not read the entire trilogy.
In Annihilation, the Southern Reach sends its twelfth expedition into the mysterious Area X. Four women—a psychologist, anthropologist, surveyor, and biologist—are tasked with exploration and documentation. The biologist, whose perspective we follow, divulges in the first chapter:
I would tell you the names of the other three, if it mattered, but only the surveyor would last more than the next day or two. Besides, we were always strongly discouraged from using names: We were meant to be focused on our purpose, and “anything personal should be left behind.” Names belonged to where we had come from, not to who we were while embedded in Area X.
Area X’s habitat ranges from the pine forest to cypress swamp to marshes, and finally to the beach and sea. Flora and fauna are all expected and yet somehow off. Area X feels like a nightmare disguised as a pleasant dream, but its costume has holes and the makeup is melting away.
Authority examines the aftermath of the twelfth expedition. Authority is the eye of the storm—calmer, slower in pace—and a bridge between Annihilation and Acceptance. The Southern Reach has a new director, John Rodriguez, a.k.a. “Control.” For every answer he finds, he discovers more questions. Not only is Area X full of mysteries, so is the Southern Reach, an entity whose ultimate purpose seems either mired by bureaucracy or obscured by conspiracy.
Where Annihilation is told from the biologist’s perspective and Authority from Control’s, in Acceptance, we not only go back to Area X following the twelfth expedition, we also learn of Area X’s early days, as well as the events leading up to the first book, Annihilation.
There’s quite a bit that’s overtly horrific, but then there are those small scraps of information that may not necessarily mean much to the narrator but do to us—these moments will literally tingle your spine. If Area X first seemed like a nightmare disguised as a dream, how much worse would it be if the truth were the reverse? What if we’re the nightmare, and our survival depends on whether we’re willing to embrace that fact?
I firmly believe that dreams and nightmares communicate on a certain wavelength. David Lynch has been able to translate that wavelength onto film, and Jeff VanderMeer captures it here in the Southern Reach Trilogy. Written in the walls underground we find the following language:
Where lies the strangling fruit that came from the hand of the sinner I shall bring forth the seeds of the dead to share with the worms that gather in the darkness and surround the world with the power of their lives while from the dim-lit halls of other places forms that never could be writhe for the impatience of the few who have never seen or been seen in the black water with the sun shining at midnight, those fruit shall come ripe and in the darkness of that which is golden shall split open to reveal the revelation of the fatal softness in the earth.
(Most of the above in fact came to VanderMeer in a dream.) Solving the mystery of Area X is like solving a complex mathematical equation in a dream. The answers are close, but slippery. Even if in the dream you feel confident, you realize your answers are gibberish once you wake up (unless you are VanderMeer, who apparently writes eloquently even in dreams). What the Southern Reach is attempting to do is to make sense of not only a dream, but someone or something else’s dream. Someone or something that may not even be human.
Language may be inadequate, but a lot of the horror from the Southern Reach Trilogy comes from VanderMeer’s choice of words, syntax, and maybe even subliminal repetitions. Words that show how words are futile. No wonder the linguist quit the twelfth expedition before it ever even started.
And just as the psychologist hypnotized her fellow expedition mates, the Southern Reach Trilogy has me mesmerized. After reading Acceptance, I spent all night dreaming of it. It continues to resonate even when I’m awake, and what sticks isn’t the horror, it’s the beauty, the promise of creation even in destruction.
So, if you haven’t already, read these books now. Words (not mine, anyway) cannot describe what masterpieces they are.