Volume 14 of this series, and I just cannot emphasize enough how much an achievement it is on part of all the individual writers involved as well as tVolume 14 of this series, and I just cannot emphasize enough how much an achievement it is on part of all the individual writers involved as well as the “show runners” Emma Bull and Elizabeth Bear to have kept Shadow Unit alive and fun to read throughout over such a long stretch.
This volume comes without any bonus material at all, presenting just two long stories. I’m missing the vignettes, but not quite as much as I was expecting to, because their usual functions are either to give us background on the Abnormal Crime Task Force’s history or glimpses into the private lives and minds of the team’s members, and the latter is here done by the two regular episodes, “Dark Leader” by Elizabeth Bear, Will Shetterly, and Emma Bull, followed by “Due North” by Leah Bobet. They are both very quiet and introspective episodes, with not much outward tension but rely mostly on character and psychological tension.
“Dark Leader” is an enjoyable read, but mostly “business as usual” for the ACTF (or, as it’s often fondly called by its members, the WTF), and for me at least this volume’s highlight was “Due North”, my favourite contribution by Leah Bobet to the series. The episode mimics TV shows in having an A plot and a B plot, both of which are only thematically connected – the theme being community, what it takes to create one, and what sacrifices are made to keep one alive, and it’s hard not to see both threads as a commentary on the WTF team itself that by now has become home and family for many of its members.
All in all, this is an almost contemplative volume, but none the less impressive for that. It marks the calm before the storm which is looming on the horizon in form of the much-dreaded final Volume 15…...more
This third installment of Shadow Unit contains ”Refining Fire” the Season 1 finale (either a long novella or a short novel, depending on how you wantThis third installment of Shadow Unit contains ”Refining Fire” the Season 1 finale (either a long novella or a short novel, depending on how you want to consider it), written by Emmal Bull and Elizabeth Bear, together with a great number of vignettes. In it, one of the Unit’s members is captured by a gamma (the super-powered criminals the Shadow Unit is investigating) – quite a common maneuvre for crime show and fiction to raise the stakes and ratchet up tension, but I do not remember having it ever seen done quite this way before. Not only because it turns it out that there is a rather close connection between kidnapper and victim, but chiefly in the way that captivity is narrated – there is not even the faintest trace of glamourization here, and “Refining Fire” spares the reader none of the details that TV shows (and indeed, most novels) merely gloss over if they mention them at all. This is not for the faint of heart – there is not a lot of actual physical violence here, but an intense and very vivid depiction of what it means to be completely in the power of someone who has no moral restraints at all, which makes for a chilling and very uncomfortable read. It is not all bleakness though – the final vignettes show the reaction of all the team members to the finale’s events, and those are full with moments of touching friendship and heartwarming kindness. Shadow Unit is great stuff, and I’m greatly looking forward to reading Season 2....more
I’ve been fascinated by Shadow Unit ever since I first read about it – both because of the concept and because several favourite authors (Elizabeth BeI’ve been fascinated by Shadow Unit ever since I first read about it – both because of the concept and because several favourite authors (Elizabeth Bear! Sarah Monette! Amanda Downum!) are involved with this. The problem used to be that I do not much like to read on the computer, so except for the occasional, wistful-sigh-accompanied visits to the web site nothing ever came of the fascination. – But now I have Kindle, and with some really fortituous timing all three completed seasons are out as e-books, so I can finally read them. And you know what? Judging by this first instalment, they’re just as good as I expected.
Shadow Unit is a virtual TV show – what it reminds me most of (though your mileage may vary, depending on what your favourite shows are) is Criminal Minds with a paranormal twist (which might yet turn out to be science-fictional – it’s still too early to tell yet). It’s about a special FBI unit down the floor from the BAU (who refer to it mostly as the WTF) and concerns itself with so-called “gammas”, perpetrators that have undergone some mutation, or maybe it is an infection – neither the reader nor the protagonists know at this stage, but I’m expecting that the overarching plot will eventually shed some light on that. Beside that plot, the show (there’s four novellas by Emma Bull, Elizabeth Bear, Sarah Monette and Will Shetterly in this instalment, plus several vignettes) spends a lot of time on the mebers of the Shadow Unit, their characters and their histories – the first two episodes here focus very strongly on that, even to the point of pushing the individual cases (the third level Shadow Unit plays out on) somewhat into the background. It is quite a varied and fascinating cast of characters presented here, all of which, is being hinted at in varying degrees of explicitness, come with their own backstories and secrets which am expecting will be elucidated in due course. As an additional twist, two of the team members are showing some symptoms of the mutation/infection/whatever and while they have not turned gammas yet (they’re designated as betas, with normal humans being alphas) they might very well be on their way there…
Shadow Unit works very well, both on the level of giving the feel and atmopshere of a police procedural TV show and on that of a serial work of literature – each of the authors retain their indivual, distinctive voice and yet each contribution fits snugly into the greater whole, telling a thrilling story (or, in the case of the vignettes, shedding a brief light on various team members) while at the same time exploring the protagonists and furthering the overarching plot. The episodes are suspenseful, moving, funny (though I have to admit that some of the banter went rather over my head, probably due to me not being an USian and as soaked in their popular culture as the writers are). This seems like the start of a very enjoyable ride and I’m keen to find out where the writers are going to take it....more
I know I’ll be sad when I get to the end of this series – and not just because there will be no more episodes after that, but also (and possibly evenI know I’ll be sad when I get to the end of this series – and not just because there will be no more episodes after that, but also (and possibly even more so) because at this stage, there cannot really be any doubt that things are not going to end well for the members of the FBI’s Anomalous Crime Task Force which we readers have come to know quite intimately over four seasons of episodes and vignettes.
It is not just the length of time we have spent with them that has made these people grow on us, but the at time almost uncannily deft hands the series’ authors have at characterizations, and in particular at convincingly describing relationships, Romantic and otherwise. The introduction of the new team member in this and the previous volume is very much a case in point, and again I was particularly struck by the way his relationship to his wife is shown, which comes across as both moving and realistic.
The series has always been playing with superhero tropes, and I guess it was only a matter of time until one of the Anomalous Crime cases would go meta and cast himself as a supervillain. Leah Bobet’s “Wild Card”, the opening story in this 13th volume of Shadow Unit finally delivers on that, and does so in an almost comedic manner, closing with what surely must be the most bizarre suspect interview in the history of crime fighting ever. The episode sets the tone for this volume, which in general is comparatively light-hearted for what is at heart a very dark, occasionally even outright bleak series. Like in the previous volume, we get a large number of episodes but only a tiny helping of additional material. Elizabeth Bear shows in “Underworld” that she’d make a great author of True Crime books (at least if she gets to make her facts up), in Chelsea Polk’s “Single Bullet Theory” a returning character from outside the team takes the central spotlight, giving us a fascinating glimpse on how the anomaly marks even people it left in its wake, while Emma Bull’s and Will Shetterly’s “Apolysis” is all about spiders, to which all I have to say is – ewwww. And that sometimes I’m glad that this is not an actual TV series…
Shadow Unit is a fascinating project, not just imitating TV crime shows, but actively transferring their narrative structures into writing and coming up with all kinds of interesting ways to achieve a TV series’ effects with literary means and keeping it fun to read throughout. Two more volumes to go now…...more
Volume 12 of Shadow Unit continues the fourth and last season of this mock TV-show over from the last installment. We get no less than four episodes hVolume 12 of Shadow Unit continues the fourth and last season of this mock TV-show over from the last installment. We get no less than four episodes here, which I think is a record for the e-book publications of the series, but barely any additional material – not sure whether that is a sign that the authors are getting tired of the series or of increased focus as they are nearing the finish line.
I’m leaning towards the latter, as I at least was not able to find any signs of exhaustion while reading this; to the contrary, I was impressed how the authors still managed to keep everything fresh even so many volumes into the series. The first two episodes here, “Five Autopsies” and “Hope Is Stronger Than Love” achieve this by giving us an outside perspective on the team and its work, the remaining two by furthering the main story arc and deepening relations between the protagonists, and all of them by presenting a well thought-out and excellently written crime plot which, in keeping with the rest of the series, stays as rigorously realistic in its depiction of FBI procedures as it is compellingly imaginative in the invention of the crimes that are being investigated. Good stuff, and I know I’ll be sad when I get to the end of it....more
Firebird is volume six of Jack McDevitt’s “Alex Benedict” series of archeological mysteries in a Science Fiction setting, a series that found its formFirebird is volume six of Jack McDevitt’s “Alex Benedict” series of archeological mysteries in a Science Fiction setting, a series that found its formula in its second volume and has stuck to it very closely since then. This novel, too, chugs along smoothly and comfortably along the rails laid down by previous volumes in the series - some things, however, are different this time round, and if Firebird doesn’t exactly deviate from the established formula it does expand on it somewhat.
This is most notable in the novel’s portrayal of its main protagonist, antique dealer Alex Benedict – we’ve been told that the is a very controversial figure in previous volume, but so far he has been presented as either unjustly maligned by envious colleagues or misunderstood by the general public; it is only now that we get a closer look on some of his more dubious business practices which might give some justification to his reputation and which even Alex’ business partner and the series’ narrator Chase Kolpath is uncomfortable with. And there even is some self-doubt as the novel progresses, which gives the character some much-needed depth.
Another change is that this time, while there still is the initial client who kicks things off with her request, she is not in the least bit mysterious, and there are no antagonists this time who send out assassin’s which Alex and Chase then need to avoid. Firebird is very low on action and focuses on the mystery instead (which is about the disappearing spaceships that have been a recurrent theme in the series since its first volume), and since this is what McDevitt does best the novel benefits considerably from it, making it the best instalment in the series for quite some time.
Another recurring also gets extensive treatment here, namely the AIs, but this I found to be very problematic. As I already wrote in my post on Echo, I am not convinced of McDevitt’s concept of Artificial Intelligence at all, because it’s too anthropomorphic - his AIs are basically humans who happen to live inside a box. In Firebird, Alex Benedict makes a stand for them receiving equal rights with humans, on the ground that AIs are basically just like humans. And that is where things become really problematic from an ethical point of view – because the attitude that someone has to be “like us” to be deserving of equal rights while it’s okay to deny them to anyone who is different from and other than us is highly questionable, and nowhere near as progressive as McDevitt seems to think it is.
The novel’s most glaring problem, however, is a very weird choice of names: It seems hardly credible that McDevitt never read or at the very least heard of Winnie-the-Pooh, so one can only wonder what moved him to call the disappeared physicist whose traces Alex and Chase follow in Firebird – Christopher Robin, of all possible names. For anyone who ever read the books or watched the movie (and one can assume that to be a vast majority of Firebird’s readers) this can’t help but conjure up rather unfortunate associations which fit neither McDevitt’s character nor his novel.
With all its issues, this volume still marks a return to form for this series, and after I had been almost ready to give up on it, I’m now actually looking forward to the next volume which promises some interesting developments in the wake of what happened in Firebird. ...more
Maj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are not only the grandparents of the Scandinavian crime novel, but there 10-volume series of novels (known in English, someMaj Sjöwall and Per Wahlöö are not only the grandparents of the Scandinavian crime novel, but there 10-volume series of novels (known in English, somewhat misleadingly as the “Martin Beck” series) pretty much (with some influence from Ed McBains 87th Precinct series) defined the shape of contemporary police procedurals.
What the series basically does is to combine social realism with the mystery novel – it takes an unflinching look at Swedish society from the early sixties to the early seventies, a look that becomes increasingly tinged with bitterness as a supposedly welfare state lets go more and more of its promise to build a better future for everyone, and instead continues to privilege the rich and powerful. Which would be very depressing stuff, if it wasn’t made readable, enjoyable even (to some degree at least) by the mystery plot that keeps readers turning the pages even as they are confronted with a sheer endless parade of human misery and mean-spiritedness. Formally considered, this is very 19th century, as Sjöwall / Wahlöö use mystery in very much the same way as Dickens or Zola used melodrama, and I would not be at all surprised if that was a tradition they intentionally decided to place themselves in.
The Fire Engine that Disappeared is the fifth volume in the series, and it continues its general trend to become increasingly focused on the character’s private lives and on giving a picture of Swedish society at the time. There is more space given to the character’s concerns outside of their police job than before, and the narrative is even more de-centralized, Martin Beck becoming almost a minor figure as the novel follows his colleagues Larsson and Kollberg as well as Mansson from Malmö and newcomer Skane. That emphasizes one of the distinguishing features of this series, the utter ordinariness of its protagonists which are not only not outstandingly good-looking or intelligent, but frequently not even particularly good policemen, but just civil servants that do their job without any particular enthusiasm and who get results not so much by brilliant deduction than by luck or sheer dogged persistence.
The latter is particularly ironic if one considers how many of the cases could just as well have occurred in a classical mystery novel. While the puzzle element is not as strong here as in the previous novel, the investigators find themselves confronted by the corpse of someone who apparently committed suicide as well as being murdered. The Fire Engine that Disappeared takes its time in solving the crime, both in that the investigations span several months and in that the novel is not what anyone would call a page-turner. It’s not slow either, however, but moves along at a steady, comfortable speed, giving readers the chance to take in the scenery along that way, as bleak as that proves to be. And it’s precisely this view of the scenery that will likely linger longest with the reader, Sjöwall/Wahlöö’s hard and uncompromising perspective on a welfare state coming apart (a perspective which I’m convinced they developed not in spite of but because of their Marxist views – something I might return to in a post on a later volume) will remain in most readers’ memory even when the details of the crime plot have faded....more
Tempting the Bride is the final volume in Sherry Thomas’ Fitzhugh trilogy (there are, however, two novellas and an erotic story, which are also part oTempting the Bride is the final volume in Sherry Thomas’ Fitzhugh trilogy (there are, however, two novellas and an erotic story, which are also part of it and none of which I have read yet). As I have pointed out in my post on the first volume of the trilogy, I consider her novels to be on the borderline between “deep” and “Wallpaper” historicals and Tempting the Bride is no exception from that.
Regarding my uncertainties pertaining to the novel as part of a trilogy which I had when reading Beguiling the Beauty, I have to say that they never got quite resolved – Tempting the Bride suffers from the symmetrical problem, i.e. a large part of the previous relationship between David and Helena was already spread out in the two previous problem, so it feels in parts like that is getting a bit of the short shrift here, in particular where Helena’s history with Andrew is concerned. And on the other hand, one really would have liked (well, this reader would have, in any case) to read more about how the couples from the two previous volumes are faring – they do make appearances here, but not nearly as much as Millie/Fitz and Helena/David did in the first volume, or Helena/David in the second, which means that by this third volume we’re back to the conventional model of recurring characters rather than the genuine trilogy as which this started out. Which is a bit of a pity.
I admit, I was frowning a lot about the amnesia at first – that’s about the most tired plot device ever and hardly ever works the way it is supposed to. This here proved to be one of the few exceptions however, and while I still am not exactly enthusiastic about it and think it’s more than a bit contrived, Sherry Thomas handled it quite well as a reboot of Helena’s and David’s relationship and also made a very nice point about how past experiences colour present perceptions. Bea was a nice touch, too, sweet but not cloying, and thinking back on the novel, I think it’s mostly the nice touches which made it enjoyable read – the plot is nothing to write home about, the characters okay but not really that fascinating, but it is the wealth of lovely details that made the most impression and will likely stick in memory – Hasting’s murals, the tiny stethoscope, Bea’s trunk and many others. In short, Tempting the Bride may not be Sherry Thomas’ best effort, but it’s a quite pleasurable read that kept me effortlessly entertained for several hours....more
This brief novel is written entirely in Letters of Recommendation – the first, and quite likely the last of its kind. All of the letters have the sameThis brief novel is written entirely in Letters of Recommendation – the first, and quite likely the last of its kind. All of the letters have the same author: Jason T. Fitger, professor of Creative and English at an American university and author of four novels, the first of which appears to have been a moderate critical and commercial success, while each of the succeeding ones tanked decisively. The latter might be enough reason for him to bitter, but in addition to this, the English department he is working for has been continuously gutted of funds by the administration and is now stuck in the first floor of a building whose second floor is undergoing a luxury renovation to house the economy department whose members all have conveniently fled to other buildings, leaving the members of the English department to the noise and asbestos-saturated air of the ongoing construction works.
Fitger is a man of many words, and so we learn quite about him in the course of this novel; as part of the fun of reading it consists in slowly piecing together an image of his character and his history by way of the numerous asides in his LORs (of which he claims to have written about 1300 – he also is somewhat prone to hyperbole) I won’t be saying any more about him, except that he is not entirely likeable but does possess some redeeming features and also is not the most reliable of narrators. He makes for a very companionable however, and it’s highly enjoyable to listen to his voice as he cajoles, pleads and threatens his way through an astonishing variety of recommendation letters.
Occasionally while reading this, I found myself what someone more interested in letters of recommendation as a possible literary form rather than for their comedy value might have made of this, and imagined Nabokov writing a cross between Pnin and Pale Fire. But it would of course be highly unfair to criticize Julie Schumacher for not accomplishing what she did not set out to do; all the more so as she succeeds admirably in what she actually did try to do here. Dear Committee Members is a very clever, very witty and very, very funny satire about the seedy underbelly of academia: its bureaucracy. Anybody who has had even a cursory experience of university administration will feel very familiar with this; I’ve never been to a university in the US myself, but recognised many things from the time I spend (very long ago) at a German one, so I can safely say that the phenomenon is universal. And even if you’ve never been anywhere near anything academic, the bureaucracy Schumann skewers on her pointed pen is not confined to universities but pretty much universal. In short, Dear Committee Members makes for a highly enjoyable read for everyone. And if you happen to be still searching for that ideal Christmas present for anyone working in the humanities – look no further, get them this novel and they will thank you for it....more
Usually, I’m strongly tempted to file any book or film with a professional hit man as its protagonist under “Fantasy” rather than “Crime.” (And as anUsually, I’m strongly tempted to file any book or film with a professional hit man as its protagonist under “Fantasy” rather than “Crime.” (And as an aside – for some reason, professional hitmen protagonists seem much more a movie than a book thing. I do wonder why that is – maybe because you get away with less psychological depth in movies, and hence it is easier to make a central character that kills people for a living, if not likeable then at least someone to care for?) Because, well, professional hitmen – they’re right up with elves and unicorns, and all the other creatures of legend.
But I never felt that temptation with Hit Man, the first in a series featuring assassin-for-hire John Keller, because author Lawrence Block (who also wrote the excellent “Matthew Scudder” series, several volumes of which I have been writing about here) did something very clever here, which basically consists of moving everything having directly to do with assassinations to the margins. He does not even attempt to gloss over the inherent implausibility of the whole concept of a professional hit man, nor does he attempt to make to make it appear plausible; instead, he just takes it at face value and takes it from there.
Hit Man is told as a series of ten inter-related stories, and while each of these deals with at least one contract, it is only a minority of the stories in which those hits are the centre around which the narrative revolves (and in every single on the kills themselves are either glossed over or left out completely), most of the time they deal with our protagonists everyday life instead. This might seem like a rather weird choice on Block’s part – here is this man with a very… exotic profession, and instead of telling us all the details about it, the stories focus on what is normal about him – his travel arrangements, how spends his time in foreign times, or how he acquires and keeps a dog. But even when it is only taking place in the margins of the narrative or even is not mentioned at all, Keller’s profession is always at the back of the reader’s mind, and even when he is occupied with the most mundane things it is always present, hovering just at the edge of perception.
The longer the book continues, the more apparent it becomes just how clever Block’s oblique approach to his protagonist is: Over the course of the book, he presents the reader with the portrait of a thoroughly normal man, somewhat lonely, a bit melancholic and given to occasional daydreaming, and all in all quite a likeable guy. But also someone who follows a deeply unethical profession, who not only has no qualms murdering people for money but also does not hesitate to kill complete innocents if they get in his way. And even so, even though he never glosses over the fact how unsavoury a character Keller is, he remains likeable throughout, the reader can’t help but sympathize with him almost against themselves. And this way Block manages to pose several pertinent and unsettling questions about ethics, about how we judge people, about what makes someone a good or evil person, without ever having to formulate them explicitly.
This is a level of profundity (not to mention brilliant writing) that is rarely found in crime fiction; and if that wasn’t enough, Hit Man also is a very funny book. Not funny in a “laugh out loud and slap your thigh” kind of way, but I very often caught myself smiling wryly at the things happening to Keller, at the small absurdities and ironies of life, and even the occasional chortle might have escaped me. The humour in this book is of the quiet kind, and is often tinged with melancholy, just like Keller himself, but is not less funny for that, and this is quite remarkable for a book dealing with such big issues, and dealing with them in such an extremely unobtrusive way. In short, Hit Man once again confirms Lawrence Block as one of the best crime writers around (living or dead), and in my opinion is one of the best books in a career that is not exactly poor in high points....more