For the first time in my life, I saw the place for what it was: lethal, shaped and honed for destruction... (406)
I picked up Broken Harbor because I liked French's first novel, In the Woods (my review). French has turned out a series of murder mysteries taking place in Dublin, but Broken Harbor attracted me because of its Great Recession theme. And I'm glad I selected it, since it's a fine read.
Two caveats: I'm not a very good mystery reader. As I've said before, mystery is a genre I like, but in which I am not very fluent. Here's my little shelf. Also, my daughter and I read this together, as we drove her to university. We're morbid like that (think Addams family). So Broken Harbor has some extratextual emotional resonance for me.
To the book!
Broken Harbor's plot concerns a brutal mass murder and its solution by members of the Dublin Murder Squad. The narrator, a detective nicknamed Scorcher, leads the investigation to its very bitter end. A second plot concerns Scorcher's family. He and his sister care for another sister, Dina, who is seriously mentally ill, probably schizophrenic. All three siblings have spent their lives coping with their mother's suicide... which took place in the seaside town of Broken Harbor, where the main plot's killings also occurred. Like In the Woods, these two narratives - police procedural and psychological trauma drama - echo each other and intersect.
In terms of plot the novel is very satisfying, with two possible flaws. Naturally we have now entered the domain of (view spoiler)[As with In the Woods, French really knows how to put together an exciting resolution to a police procedural. She lays out a series of possible solutions, leads the cops through them one by one, until the final, awful truth. Two flaws might appear, though. The first is that the mother/wife's motivation is not as deeply laid as are the motives for so many other characters' extreme actions. I see that she was driven mad by her husband's sudden decline and the isolation of her home, but that seemed... not rushed so much as metaphorical or formal. I can see her snapping, but am not sure she'd wipe out her children and husband. The second is unresolved supernatural elements. We never get the answer to what the hell was in the house's attic and walls. Who or what left the four (ahem) headless skeletons? What did the daughter see on her last night? Based on In the Woods, I'm willing to believe in some kind of Gothic genius loci that drove both of these things, mother murder and monster muttering. See the passage I quote at the top of this review for a sample. But I'm not sure that's how the novel ultimately settles out. (hide spoiler)].
Back to non-spoilery topics, Broken Harbor is beautifully told. French continues to show her gift for lyrical descriptions of emotional states and Irish sites. This stylistic skill also powers her characterizations, which are rich and convincing. It's very well put together, from setting up different voices to repeating the etymology of the titular locale (156) in the book's very last word.
Tonally, this is one of the saddest novels I've read in a while. It begins with brutal killings in a scary place and goes downhill from there. It's not slow - far from it - but the main and secondary characters confront so many defeats, traumas, and horrors that the novel ends up as a resounding tragedy. Yes, the murders are solved, and that makes it so much worse.
Especially sad was (view spoiler)[the broken relationship between the detectives. My daughter and I were sick to read of Ritchie's well-intentioned scheme and its backfiring. Ditto Connor's path through multiple layers of guilt, well-intentioned lying, and extensive suffering. And every scene with Dina raised my hackles (hide spoiler)].
I don't want to scare off readers by over-emphasizing the book's sadness. I think it's a successful tragedy. It's also very funny. There's a family of neighbors who are brilliantly realized as satirical objects, both humorous and neatly slotted into the plot. It's also a very warm book, based on friendships and family relationships that are genuinely moving. And the two lead detectives enjoy their work for much of the novel, reveling in the process of detection.
Broken Harbor is also a solid Great Recession novel. French uses multiple characters almost as a social novel to show us Irish people living through the boomtime and devastated by the crash. Many perspectives, careers, political views combine to offer a rich historical take.
I enjoyed the horror touches (see spoilers above for more). Without giving anything away, there are some scenes and details which would have done well in a non-gory Gothic tale. I don't know if this is due to my professional investment in the Gothic and relative lack of awareness of horror's role in mysteries, but I liked what French did.
Overall, I recommend Broken Harbor. The sadness might be too much, and I still have questions about the resolution, but those are cavils next to the novel's general power and beauty.
(Thanks to my brother Kevin for recommending this one)["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This book may be the ultimate secret agent novel. It could also be the most insanely ambitious work of anthropological science fiction. It's also a gold...moreThis book may be the ultimate secret agent novel. It could also be the most insanely ambitious work of anthropological science fiction. It's also a gold mine for anyone interested in Frank Herbert's work.
Let me explain...
The Godmakers is a fix-up novel, a cluster of short stories smooshed into the shape of a novel. The plot concerns the adventures of Lewis Orne, an extraordinarily capable agent working for two interstellar agencies. His mission is to prevent a devastating war. As he progresses in his career - yes, Godmakers is also a bildungsroman! - his abilities and achievements escalate. The conclusion sees Orne (view spoiler)[become a god, or a least a very powerful telekinetic. (hide spoiler)] Hence the above comment about Orne as the ultimate agent. I was reminded of other sf secret agent tales, like Joe Haldman's All My Sins Remembered or Herbert's character Jorg McKie.
Orne is also an anthropologist, although the term never appears. He analyzes each planet and society as that kind of cultural detective. In the opening segment (story) he and an ally uncover one planet's secret by studying the shape and size of its roads. In the second, my favorite, Orne cobbles together observations about another world's language, orbital mechanics, and biology to solve another mystery. Other stories use similar approaches to determine how humans work together. One of the great pleasures I find in reading Frank Herbert is how he brings the reader to that perspective.
This is the kind of stance Herbert applied through most of his career, most notably in Dune. Think of the detailed descriptions of societies powerfully shaped by environment in that book, or in Dosadi Experiment. He quickly yet deeply sketches out hypothetical anthropologies.
Godmakers resonates with many other Herbert themes. Religious engineering, a la the Bene Gesserit: check. The problem of a superhuman, a la Paul Atreides: yep. Multi-generational gynocentric political and breeding schemes, also a le Bene Gesserit: ditto. There's a painful physical-psychological test, like the one opening Dune. There is also the dialectic of social stasis and revolt, best seen in the underrated God Emperor of Dune. Glowglobes float around, and Arab/Islamic themes appear.
Some of these themes speak to the general history of American sf. Godmakers relies heavily on psionics, a concept which fairly obsessed some writers and editors in mid-century. The anthropological sf approach had many echoes, especially in the 1960s. The idea of a thoughtful, well-trained elite manipulating societies strikes a chord with many post-WWII novels.
As a whole, Godmakers is more accessible than most other Herbert. Plots and action happen very quickly. Dialog, which can reach terrific heights of complexity and suspicion in his other stories, is merely informative and rapid here. The setting is barely outlined at all. And the tone is brighter, less brooding than in, say, White Plague or the later Dune books. The conceptual work is relatively shallow.
I wouldn't recommend this to non-sf readers, since it requires some genre familiarity to work. YA readers might enjoy it, and any longtime sf reader would as well.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
A fine history of the epic 1812-1815 war between the Russia and French empires, Russia Against Napoleon rewards both the general reader and the studen...moreA fine history of the epic 1812-1815 war between the Russia and French empires, Russia Against Napoleon rewards both the general reader and the student of the Napoleonic wars.
Dominic Lieven tells a vast story, beginning with Napoleon's invasion of Russia in 1812, then the German wars of 1813 (which include the biggest battle in European history by that time), and concluding with the 1814 invasion of France and (first) defeat of Napoleon. Readers new to this subject will be well treated by Lieven's combination of good organization, narrative skill, and attention to historical actors.
The book's main achievement is to recast the events from a Russian perspective. Lieven makes a convincing case for tsar Alexander I's leadership and strategic thinking, both in military affairs and especially in diplomacy. Alexander conceived of a massive, sustained war, which became
the longest campaign in European history, in less than two years the Russian army had marched from Vilna to Moscow and then all the way back across Europe to Paris. (513)
. Alexander did so despite the different wishes of part-time allies, notably Austria, who did not always want to end Napoleon's rule. Indeed, Alexander, his advisors, and his generals appear as the leading strategic force of the late Napoleonic period:
One key reason why Russia defeated Napoleon was that its leaders out-thought him.(526)
In short, Lieven returns Russia to a central role in the Napoleonic period.
Narratively, this means several things. First, Russia Against Napoleon spends time showing the build up and maturation of the Russian army over time, developing through horrific experience into a world-class fighting machine. Readers may be familiar with accounts celebrating the defensive ferocity of Russian forces opposing the invaders in 1812, but less aware of those forces' improvements in 1813-14. Details here may blur in the mind of a reader new to the period, but are worth absorbing. Second, the book offers a rich and powerful treatment of the 1812 invasion, including good observations about Russia's grand strategy. Third, this means a Russian-centric view of the 1813 and 1814 campaigns, which I found welcome after reading many accounts emphasizing the French and German roles.
Lieven concludes by seeing Russia's triumph as a sign of the ancien regime's potency in the face of modernity. This is a powerful corrective to a progressive reading of history, and also a useful glimpse into Russian culture and its fondness for autocracy. It also lets us take seriously Alexander's achievement in areas usually seen as wins for modernity: espionage, logistical support, and organizational overhauls.
Russia Against Napoleon is also superbly grounded in Russian primary sources. Lieven immersed himself in Russian archives, especially those available after the USSR's fall, giving many rich supports to his narrative and argument.
Let me add one additional item of praise in favor of the book's maps. I'm very picky about historical works and their cartographic presentation. All too often books' maps are incomplete, hard to read, or don't serve the text. In contrast Russia Against Napoleon offers maps that are a joy for the reader: clear to read and well linked to the text. I could always find where actions took place - this is all too rare, and merits an additional star.
"I had never felt the presence of evil as I felt it then: strong and rancid-sweet in the air, curling invisible tendrils up the table legs, nosing with obscene delicacy at sleeves and throats." (374)
What a dark, sad, and irresistible novel.
In the Woods is, on one level, a classic murder mystery. It's a police procedural set in the Dublin area, where the cops try to solve a child killing.
At the same time it's a character study about a trauma survivor, one of the detectives, who has an intimate and hidden link to the crime he's trying to help solve. As a boy Rob Ryan's two closest friends disappeared in the nearby and titular woods. Ryan survived whatever happened - the vanishing was never solved, the two children never recovered - but had no memory of the event. As an adult, and detective, Ryan now investigates a murder which took place in the same woods.
The murder mystery is very good, excellent for a first novel, which this is. French lavishly sets up the puzzle during the book's first quarter, placing a lot of pieces on a tricky board for us to contemplate. Then middle chunk of In the Woods sees the police failing to solve the case, going down all kinds of blind allies, getting stymied and drunk, with nerves frazzling. The end is very satisfying and sustained. It's no quick reveal. Indeed, a whole subterranean novel comes to light.
The character study is very well done, but less satisfying, mostly because the narrator is such a wretch. "I am intensely aware, by the way, that this story does not show me in a particularly flattering light." (409) Ryan constantly makes mistakes. He broods about his failure to recollect the past, his present mistakes, and his escalating angst. Worse, he wounds people, clumsily and cluelessly, especially his very put-upon partner, Cassie Maddox. Ryan is very well depicted, but ultimately an unrewarding character in whose mind we spend 428 pages.
In the Woods may satisfy a non-Irish reader's desire to learn more about that country, or at least Dublin. It's not a travelogue, but there is a good amount of local detail, especially in the context of historical comparison between the 1980s (when Ryan's childhood trauma occurred) and around 2004 (the novel's present). I was struck by one character's intense profession of hatred of religion (96-97), because nobody pushed back at him; a bit of a surprise for a very Irish country, or perhaps this is a Dublin thing.
The novel just touches on the fantastic (176, 223, 235). This keeps open the possibilities of a supernatural resolution, while also maintaining our skepticism about this very unreliable narrator. One of my favorite examples:
Her voice was low and even, expressionless. The speakers hollowed it out, underlaid it with a whispery echo, and in the background there was a rushing sound like some faraway high wind. I thought of those ghost stories where the voices of the dead come to their loved ones from crackly radios or down telephone lines, borne on some lost wavelength across the laws of nature and the wild spaces of the universe. (389)
Now for spoilers. First, (view spoiler)[the resolution of the murder is excellent. Damien emerges as a satisfying killer and patsy, but Rosalind takes over the book as a psychopathic villain. French allows plenty of time for their two intertwined stories to unfold, and it's well worth the pages. As someone still learning the mystery genre, I appreciated how lightly In the Woods sets up Damien and Rosalind early in the novel, tracing them just enough in the middle to keep them in play. The other possible bad guys are also quite credible, from land developers to an intense archaeologist to the victim's messed-up father. (hide spoiler)]
However, (view spoiler)[Ryan's decline is both nicely done and almost too sad to take in. We see him achieve the one insight which breaks the case, but he falls apart soon after and gets sidelined. Then he's de-detectivized, doesn't manage to escape his hated flatmate, and badly loses Cassie. There are so many painful scenes, like Cassie's semi-fake, semi-sincere storytelling to Rosalind, that I found it hard to plow onward. It was like Woody Allen at his most self-pitying. But utterly credible. (hide spoiler)].
And yet (view spoiler)[I wasn't disappointed by the novel's refusal to solve the 1980s mystery. The novel is crammed tightly enough with the present-day story. I'm curious to see if successive novels address this. (hide spoiler)]
Overall, a fine mystery, and a grand first novel. I recommend In the Woods if you're looking for a well-crafted police procedural.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
I really wanted to like this book. I did. del Toro's a creator I respect deeply. I was charmed by the thought of his trying out a new take on vampiris...moreI really wanted to like this book. I did. del Toro's a creator I respect deeply. I was charmed by the thought of his trying out a new take on vampirism.
And the book began well. The now-familiar trope of a mystery jetliner still resonates. The conception of vampires as, well, something other than sparkly ((view spoiler)[parasitic worms turning people into vicious viral vectors, complete with spring-loaded mandible stingers and excreting while feeding, yum! (hide spoiler)]) worked well for me (although owes much to the badly underappreciated Charnas classic The Vampire Tapestry.
The opposition of science and emergency management to monstrosity had a lot of promise. There's also a fun sense of humor, from a snap-crackle-pop gag to a villain named after a Phil Dick character ("Eldritch Palmer").
But then... The Strain downshifts into something lesser.
The characters go nowhere, and even become less interesting.
The van Helsing plot starts bravely, then becomes very silly and hard to believe.
The crisis stops being realistic. Emergency services and government responses simply stop happening one day in, without any explanation. Barely anyone uses the internet to send or obtain information.
A 9-11/Ground Zero plot goes nowhere.
And there's a sad gender bias, with men as central action heroes and women staying behind to ask helpful questions and otherwise do little.
One bad sign was my desire to speed read from around 40% of the way in.
I have no desire to read the sequel, nor watch the tv series.
I hope del Toro fares better in his next writing project.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)