Jasper Fforde won me over years ago with his introduction of Thursday Next in a series of novels that were equal parts fantasy, science fiction, mysteJasper Fforde won me over years ago with his introduction of Thursday Next in a series of novels that were equal parts fantasy, science fiction, mystery, and just all-around good storytelling. Even when it surfaced that he was writing a fifth book in the series, after he had pretty much wrapped up all of the loose ends of the series in the fourth one, but he still managed to pull off a story that worked (so long as you can tolerate self-referential bits).
The Road to High Saffron is the first in a new series titled Shades of Grey, which is set in a future world where people are now colorblind, and are assigned a particular class status based on which colors they can see, and how much of it they can see. This leads to the purples being the highest social class in the society (because they can see red and blue), and where the people who can see almost no color are designated “Greys,” and are reduced to the menial labor class. It’s an odd world, where color means everything, and the government pipes color into residential areas the way that we pump water into ours. The thing is, no one can see all colors, so the society here doesn’t work unless everyone is working together. The society has very rigid rules to work toward that end, and whatever means can help take the society to that end are justifiable. It leads to a very dystopian future, which has a lot in common with Huxley’s Brave New World.
In this book, the story revolves around Edward, the son of a swatchman (who is the society’s version of a doctor; certain colors in this world have a medicinal effect, but only certain people are allowed access to them) who has been sent to one of the towns outside the urban areas to replace a swatchman who recently died. The mood and character of the town is very different from the city Edward and his father are used to, and as they spend more time there, Edward realizes that the Utopian ideal that the society is selling isn’t all that it seems to be.
This is a typical Jasper Fforde novel. It’s very compelling, very interesting, with a cast of likeable characters fighting a battle against beauracracy and tradition. The mystery is satisfying, as is the conclusion, but I did have a couple of issues with some of the characters. One of the characters made a complete change near the end of the book, and while the change made sense, the progression to that point seemed rushed. In addition, there was a plot device that carried through about 4/5ths of the novel, which turned out to be little more than a teaser. It was slightly annoying, but not enough for me to not enjoy the story. Of course, this is the first novel in a projected series, so maybe some of these issues will be resolved and/or explained in future volumes.
One word of caution, though: It’s very difficult to get in to the novel. Fforde doesn’t waste any time with easing the reader in to the setting and its implications to society. He just starts in that world, and lets the explanations come through the progressing narrative. This is fine (to be honest, I prefer that sort of exposition), but for a world that’s so different, in a novel that is far outside the writer’s normal body of work, it was a bit of a struggle. After about 50 pages, everything became clear, but those first 50 pages were a little confusing. The payoff of the story overall, though, is worth the effort.
If this is your first Jasper Fforde novel, then stick with it and let the story engross you. If it isn’t, you won’t need much encouragement to stick with it, since you know the author knows how to spin a yarn. It’s definitely worth it....more
Jay Lake is an unknown to me, but he sure does get a lot of praise. His first novel, Rocket Science, received starred reviews in both Library JournalJay Lake is an unknown to me, but he sure does get a lot of praise. His first novel, Rocket Science, received starred reviews in both Library Journal and Booklist, which prompted me to read it. Once I had the book in hand, I saw that Locus magazine also had nothing but praise for the book, and the author blurbs (none of whom I recognized) spoke of weirdness ... the kind of weirdness that makes regular weird look like the Stepford wives, y'know?
First off, let me say that I almost didn't make it through this book. I was about 30 pages into it when The Demolished Man showed up for me at the library, and was having a hard time getting into the book. I may have been distracted during those 30 pages, but I just wasn't getting any kind of feel for the book during that time. I contemplated just returning it, unfinished, a habit which I've finally adopted in order to have enough years left in my life to read the books I want to read. But there was a nagging voice in the back of my head, and it said, Give it one more chance.
Well, you should know by now that if I'm writing a review of the book, then I must have finished it, right? It's sort of like those suspense novels written in the first person; you never really worry about the hero making it through the events, because he lived to tell you the story. Anyway, I'm glad I did give it that last chance, because it picked up at that point, and I eagerly finished it within a couple of evenings.
Rocket Science is set in the late 1940s, shortly after the end of World War II. Patriotism is high, as is the Red Scare, but the main character of the book stayed out of the war (against his will, of course) due to a bad leg he received from a childhood bout with polio. During the war, he worked as an aircraft engineer, working on the planes that required top-level confidentiality. His best friend did serve in the war, though, and he's returning with a bit of contraband: He's taken a panzer tank, and also a large, unidentifiable aircraft. Of course, something that large can't pass into the country without someone noticing, and it's not long before the entire city seems to be drawing in on the two buddies and their machines....
OK, I liked this book. It read quickly, and once I got into the story, I found myself having a lot of fun with the story. It kept me involved, and kept me reading. The story is, at its core, a noir mystery, since it's all about who's after these two guys, but the story is classified as science fiction because of the mysterious aircraft. This is an odd pairing of genres, because I think the publishers do the story a disservice by attaching the SF label, making readers expect something extraordinary to happen during the read. By the same token, if they advertised it as a noir-style mystery, then that audience would likely be disappointed by the SF overtones. Either way, though, I think the fusion works, because there were enough red herrings in there to keep me guessing who was the guilty party, and I was also intrigued with the story behind the aircraft.
My biggest disappointment was that it didn't meet up with the level of weirdness I was expecting. Andreas Eschbach, Steve Aylett, and Damien Broderick all set the bar of weirdness high for me with (respectively) The Carpet Makers, Lint, and Godplayers, and if I'm reading blurbs about how weird this novel is going to be, it better be Alice in Wonderland-meets-Marilyn Manson-meets-They Might Be Giants weird. Rocket Science was a little unusual, sure, but it's certainly not weird.
Still, it was a good book, even if it ended abruptly. I have to say that it wasn't a complete waste of my time....more
I discovered Jay Lake last summer, through Rocket Science, which had a slow start, but ultimately caught the pace of a good story, and satisfied me toI discovered Jay Lake last summer, through Rocket Science, which had a slow start, but ultimately caught the pace of a good story, and satisfied me to no end. Mainspring fell along those same lines, but there was a part of me that struggled to keep up with the story until I reached the last hundred pages or so. After that, I felt that the story caught its groove, and I raced to see what was going to happen to the main characters. I don’t know if this is typical of Lake and his stories (Trial of Flowers is on my list, so I’ll find out), but so far, Lake is worth the effort that it takes me to stick with his books.
Mainspring has a wonderful premise, and a wonderful setting. The great thing is that the premise and the setting are the one and the same. I’ve heard the book described as “clockpunk,” which really means that it’s a steampunk science fiction novel, centered around clocks. The Earth is a giant clockwork mechanism, complete with tracks in the sky to carry it in its orbit, and tracks for the Moon and the other planets. The main religion of the northern hemisphere is centered on this clockwork, enough so that the characters pray to their Brass Christ. The main character, Hethor, receives a visitation by Gabriel, the brass archangel, to find the Key Perilous, to wind the mainspring of the world, because it’s slowing down. Hethor is a clockmaker’s apprentice, and is strongly in tune with time. He is so in tune with time and the Earth that he can tell the midnight is slipping; instead of falling truly at midnight, he notices as it falls seconds past the correct time. Along with the slippage of time, he notices terrible earthquakes following these errors, and realizes that he must pursue his quest to save the world.
And what a quest it is! This is a story that involves air pirates, dungeons, winged savages, a wild world in the southern half of the planet, and a quest that is half adventure, half spiritual. Where Rocket Science was a fairly traditional science fiction story, Mainspring launches itself into a fantastical world full of high imagination and daring ideas. This coming-of-age adventure may seem familiar in its structure, but that’s the only thing familiar about this story.
Lake has a knack for capturing his characters very well. I could overlook some of the secondary characters, to the point of not really caring about what happened to some of the important ones, but with Hethor and his closest companions, I was very much concerned about what happened to them. In fact, there were portions of the story near the end that nearly had me in tears, he captured them so well.
For devout readers of fantasy and science fiction, the book may be easier to digest. I’m not accustomed to having the setting of the book be so much a part of the story, and I found myself having to pay more attention than usual to a lot of the descriptions. But, as I mentioned above, I think it was definitely worth the effort to stick with it. I would recommend Mainspring to anyone who enjoys daring stories of adventure and imagination, though it’s not really intended for younger readers, despite the age of the protagonist....more
There's a good chance that, had I not known who the author of this book was, I wouldn't have been interested in reading it. It's received some good reThere's a good chance that, had I not known who the author of this book was, I wouldn't have been interested in reading it. It's received some good reviews, and even a starred review or two from library publications, but the premise didn't really strike me as anything outstanding. But I like Craig Ferguson, and it turned out that this isn't his first time writing a full-fledged story (he's written three movies). By the time it was selected for my book club group, it was pretty much a done deal that I would read it.
This is an odd, quirky book. It focuses on a handful of disparate, unrelated characters who are going through their own epiphanies. One is a disgraced televangelist; another is a man diagnosed with terminal cancer; another is a sleazy manipulator using his brother for his own gain. Each is looking for something significant, something important (though some are trying harder to find it than others), and their journeys to find what they seek ultimately intersect. It probably would have been easy for the author to have them all group up at the end of the novel and have it be some happy-go-lucky confluence of events; instead, their interaction is limited, and in some cases, fleeting. So chalk one up to the author for doing something unexpected.
It's hard to talk about the plot for this book. It exists, but mostly as a framework to showcase the characters. That being said, this isn't exactly a character-driven novel, either. As I mentioned, "odd and quirky" is a good way to describe this novel. You'll be caught up in the events of each character's life, and keep reading the book because he jumps from character to character between chapters, usually at those moments where you want to know NOW what happens to Character X, just as he takes us to Character Y. It's a cheap way to build suspense and keep you reading, but damn it, it works.
The book is also oddly (there's that word again) poignant. I say that because the book is a little profane, and sometimes offensive, but the author typically finds a way to use those moments to make some comment about life that is spot on. He doesn't hold back from what he really wants to say -- he skewers religion, love, Hollywood, sex, and what it means to be a number of different nationalities over the course of the novel -- but he never sounds callous, mean, or cruel as he does so. He's just making observations, tempered through his characters. My favorite moment was when I realized the significance of the title of the book.
This book probably isn't for everyone, but I think it's worth reading. It certainly has a lot to say....more
If ever there were a book that screamed “No Brainer” at me, as far as whether or not I would read it, this is it. The blurb on the cover made referencIf ever there were a book that screamed “No Brainer” at me, as far as whether or not I would read it, this is it. The blurb on the cover made reference to The Phantom Tollbooth. Another on the back made reference to both Neil Gaiman and Clive Barker, and one on the inside front cover of the book mentioned Lewis Carroll. I mean, that’s a list of my favorite book, one of my favorite writers, and a writer who has continually astounded me with his imagination. How could I pass this one up?
If I had to pick just one of those comparisons, though, to best describe the book, it would have to be Clive Barker. Anyone who’s read his Arabat series is going to find some similarities here. There are some dark moments and some wild creations in Un Lundun, and I found myself thinking of Barker’s imagery during much of the book. I can see some of the comparison to The Phantom Tollbooth (there are some puns come to life throughout the book), but the one to Gaiman is a little less convincing. But regardless, this is still an enjoyable book.
The premise behind the book is that, behind London, there exists a world very much like London, but also very much different from it. There are different ways to pass between the worlds, but suffice it to say, the London side of things is the London that we know over here, while the Unlundun side is where you find the fantastic creatures and the wild magic. Deeba discovers Unlundun when her friend, Zanna, finds her way over there through the help of some strange happenings due to a prophecy that Zanna will be the one to free Unlundun from the tyranny of the Smog. And, just to be clear, the Smog isn’t just smog; it’s the Smog, sentient and powerful and all together nasty. If the Smog gets its way, then all of Unlundun will be under its power, and after then, it will move and try to do the same to regular London.
There is a lot of detail in this book. The author creates fantastic creature, only to have them serve as a counterpoint to other normality, or to only be in the book for a chapter or two. The ideas and imagination can be a little overwhelming, as the author strives to put as much as possible in his book. As a result, the story suffers slightly as he seems to pay more attention to the detail than he does to the characters. The characterization does suffer, but not only from his attention to the setting; the characters sometimes seem superficial and two-dimensional, even as they’re working toward the greater good to save Unlundun. It’s a strange dichotomy, and while it does detract from the overall feel of the story, it doesn’t slow down the process as you read it.
This is primarily a children’s/YA novel, and should be approached as one. Its heavy-handed message and dark overtones make it suitable for readers of any age, but ultimately, it should be viewed as a product of its audience. Nevertheless, readers who like imaginative fiction and creative ideas would not be displeased with the book....more