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2009/08/21

How Tough Are Nails, Anyway?



Rachel Morgan is a sexy, tough-as-nails private-eye --

("Wait, wait, wait. Didn't you just review this book?"

"No. You must be thinking of Greywalker."

"What's the diff?"

"That was about Harper Blaine, a dark haired greywalker who fights crime. This is about Rachel Morgan, a red-headed witch who--"

"Red-headed witch? You haven't even started the review and I don't see how this can get much worse."

"It does. I have two words for you -- 'Mary Sue.'"

"Dear god."

"Well, I don't know for sure that Rachel Morgan and Kim Harrison have the same personality. But the photo on Wikipedia shows Harrison as a red-head. And Rachel inspires an amazing amount of loyalty from her colleagues despite the fact that she's bumbling, incompetent, and quite possibly mentally disabled."



"Care to expand on that last part?"

"There's this one scene -- actually it's several chapters long -- where she turns herself into a mink --"

"A sexy mink."

"Ahem. Yes. A sexy mink. To sneak into the villain's headquarters. She gets caught quite easily and put in a hamster cage. The whole time she's held prisoner, she keeps shouting at her captor any time he does something insidious."

"So she retains the ability to talk despite being a mink?"

"No, that's just it. She knows no one will understand her."

"Are you sure she wasn't just talking to herself?"

"No, her comments aren't asides -- they're attempts to communicate, as though she expects people to respond."

"Well, she is a mink. You can't expect human-level intelligence."

"Nope, she retains human-level intelligence when in rodent form. Although 'human-level' is giving her a bit too much credit. She's constantly walking into traps when everyone around her is shouting, 'Don't do it! It's a trap!'"

"So the other characters are better?"

"More intelligent, but annoying in their own ways. There's Jenks the pixie who spends all his time either complaining or prying into people's personal lives. And Ivy the vampire, who has some creepy sado-sapphic attraction to Rachel, whom she blames for enticing her. Oh, and there's Keasley, the kindly old next door neighbor who offers them sage advice throughout the book."

"What, like Wilson in Home Improvement?"

"Yeah, apart from race he's exactly like Wilson."

"Apart from ... dear lord, you don't mean he's a magical negro?"

"Well, he's magical and black, but there's no need to use that kind of language."

"No, no, 'magical negro' is a term Spike Lee coined to describe characters like Bagger Vance and Mother Abigail -- kindly, seemingly mystical blacks whose entire raison d'etre seems to be to offer wise words to white people."

"Then yeah, he's a magical negro."

"This really does sound dire. Is there at least a compelling plot?"

"Not really. Rachel, Ivy and Jenks are officers in a magical police force until one day they decide to go into business as P.I.s. Ivy has enough money to buy her way out of her contract, and pixies are freelancers, so they're free to leave. But Rachel breaks her contract against her boss's will, so the cops send hitmen after her."

"So they kill anyone who quits the magic police? I thought this was urban-fantasy set in a world similar to our own?"

"It is, but it's alt-history in a world that's undergone a major plague. See, in this timeline Crick and Watson have a female partner who makes a major breakthrough in DNA that shifts the focus from physics to biology. Genetic engineering takes off instead of things like rocketry."

"Ah, so the geneticists unlock the genes that allow humans to do magic?"

"Oh no. Witches, vampires, and whatnot have been living in secret among humanity since the beginning of history. They just made their presence known after a gengineered plague wiped out the majority of humanity."

"Okay, let me see if I have this straight -- the book is an alt-history that uses a science fictional point of departure to establish a fantasy world -- which is in fact a secret history?"

"Yeah."

"That's a bit convoluted, don't you think?"

"Just a tad."

"There's no way this book can be as bad as it sounds."

"It's not bad, really. Kinda silly and too soft-boiled for my taste, but if you need something to read on a plane-flight, it'll do."

"So that's you're review."

"Yeah. This isn't a book worth spending more than a couple paragraphs on.")

2009/08/19

The Grey Lady of Seattle

Greywalker by Kat Richardson

Harper Blaine is a sexy, tough-as-nails private-eye. After one of her cases ends with her having a near-death experience, she begins to see odd things. Her doctor can't find anything physically wrong with her head, but he recommends she talk to his friend Ben Danziger, a paranormal researcher at a local university.

Ben and his witch wife Mara tell Harper that she's seeing the Grey, a netherworld between our plane and the afterlife. At first Harper blows them off as flakes, but as weird things continue to happen, and her two newest cases take on supernatural aspects, she returns to them for advice.

The key to a good mystery novel is that the audience can't figure things out faster than the detective -- it can happen occasionally, but more than once per book and the detective starts looking like a dimwit. The problem with Greywalker is that the audience knows going in that it's a fantasy novel, but Harper doesn't figure it out until fifty pages in and she takes another hundred to accept it -- and even then, she remains slow on the uptake. There are numerous points in the book where it's clear to readers that, hey, that guy who called you while your phone was disconnected is a ghost, and that mysterious pale guy over there is a vampire, and yet Harper takes another twenty pages to figure things out.

But she's an interesting enough character that she's able to overcome this flaw -- as long as it doesn't become a recurring theme in the series, like Harry Potter's continued ignorance of the Wizarding society even seven years after he entered it.

She's also helped along by a colorful supporting cast. Ben and Mara make for interesting mentors, especially in that they aren't very good at it. Greywalking is a rare power which neither of them have. They can give more generalized advice about the supernatural, but when it comes to the Grey they rely upon second-hand sources. Harper's also aided by Quinton, a computer hacker who hooks her up with a DIY security system after her office is broken into. He is by far the most interesting character after Harper -- and maybe not even after her. Despite being extremely smart, he doesn't seem to have a steady job, subsisting as a freelance technical trouble shooter. He also evinces a degree of paranoia -- not the "can't sleep, clowns will eat me" sort, but the practical kind of someone who has good reason to believe someone is out to get him. In many ways, he resembles what Harry Caul might've become after the events of The Conversation. Then there's Will, an auctioneer whom Harper meets in the course of an investigation and takes a romantic interest in. He's the weak link among the secondary characters. His defining characteristic seems to be that he's really good looking and makes Harper feel all tingly. His personality is so whitebread that he doesn't even have crust. It's as though Richardson set out to create a character more bland than Riley from the fourth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And speaking of, we also have vamp characters. They aren't the pure evil found in the Buffyverse, but neither do they sparkle or spend their time moping like Lestat. These are scary guys who lose their humanity as they get older, but they don't become unreasoning and they can be bargained with as long as you have something to offer them.

But the odd thing is, Harper meets this entire supporting cast for the first time in this book. Even though she's already an established PI when the story begins, she apparently didn't have any friends or professional acquaitances apart from one cop who's only mentioned in passing. Then in the course of a week she meets all these people who become important figures in her life. At times it seems like she didn't exist before the first page of the book.

I suppose I'll have to read the sequels to find out if Richardson fixes this problem.

2009/08/17

Mary Shelley's Lolita

Mathilda by Mary Shelley

When Mathilda's mother dies giving birth to her, Mathilda's father is so overcome with grief that he abandons his new-born daughter to relatives and departs England for ... well, that's never quite explained. Maybe he goes to fight Turks, or becomes a slaver in Africa, or a whaler in the South Seas. I like to think he becomes a gentleman adventurer.

Mathilda in the mean time grows up to be a sensitive young woman who spends a lot of time in the woods, rather like a demonic woman in an Arthur Machen story. (Mathilda was never published in Mary Shelley's lifetime, and didn't see print until the 1950s, so it couldn't've been an influence on Machen, but the style of narration is very similar to The White People.) Mathilda only has a handful of books to read growing up -- Shakespeare, Milton, Pope, Cowper and Livy. Fans of Shelley's more famous creation may recognize an echo here -- in Frankenstein the monster educated himself by reading the sole contents of an old hermit's library -- Paradise Lost, The Sorrows of Young Werther, and Plutarch.

One day, Mathilda's father returns and takes her under his care. At first all is well as her father tries to make up for all the years he's missed. But Mathilda looks a little too much like her mother, and this stirs uncomfortable feelings in her father. He sinks into a deep meloncholia and refuses to explain its cause to Mathilda. As he seems on the point of wasting away, Mathilda goes to him and demands the truth. He tries to disuade her, telling her the truth will ruin their lives. But like the wives of Adam, Lot, and Bluebeard, Mathilda can't leave well enough alone and she badgers her father until he confesses his incestuous thoughts.

Displaying some sensibility, Mathilda immediately locks herself in her bedroom. But the next day she finds her father has departed the house, leaving behind a note saying that this time he plans to never return. Mathilda, her horror having subsided, decides to follow him, but by the time she catches up, he's killed himself.

Mathilda returns to the custody of her relatives, but she decides to fake her death and run away to start a new life. She buys a house on a heath, which from the descriptions sounds like it's just down the road from Heathcliff and Cathy. While there, she encounters a young poet who falls in love with her. But even though her father never did more than express his feelings, Mathilda is emotionally disturbed and unable to have a normal relationship.

Although the book contains no hint of the supernatural -- not even the Radcliffian spooky stuff that turns out to be a skeevy old priest trying to frighten Our Heroine -- it is as clearly Gothic as The Monk or The Castle of Otranto. If Mathilda has more psychological depth than the poor besotted women who populate most Gothics, that doesn't change the nature of her character from the poor innocent who is sexually menaced; likewise Mathilda's father is, to large degree, a more sympathetic, Byronic version of Manfred or Ambrosio. (And is it any coincidence that the object of Ambrosio's lust was a girl named Matilda?) The poet who falls in love with Mathilda is the same sort of callow youth who fills so many of Radcliffe's novels, though here he has no hope of winning his love's interest.

Although not a ripping-yarn like Frankenstein, Mathilda is a fascinating and perverse slice of Shelley's mind.


Lester Del Rey vs Healthcare Reform

Badge of Infamy by Lester Del Rey

Daniel Feldman is a pariah -- once a successful doctor, his lisence has been revoked after he performed a life-saving operation outside a designated hospital zone. With nothing for him on Earth but a life of poverty, Feldman stows away on a ship to Mars.

Mars is ... well, you know the deal. Colony world kept in hock to Earth, receives only the minimal resources necessary to keep it profitable, limited medical facilities, etc. The colonists, naturally, are willing to accept even a pariah doctor. And Medical Lobby tries to stop him, but legal shenanigans keep him out of jail.

In the meantime, an ancient Martian plague has been unleashed, but terrestrial authorities are slow to react and refuse to listen to Feldman's warnings. Can he find a cure before it's too late for both planets?

Is the Pope Catholic?

The story lumbers along as though blindfolded, blundering into the plot seemingly by accident. Feldman spends much of the book being acted upon instead of acting -- or even reacting. He's like Candide, minus the humor or ironic insights, which is like a pizza without any cheese, sauce or toppings.

The other characters are as much plot-puppets as Feldman. His ex-wife goes from irrationally hating him ("How dare you save a man's life! You should be cast out of society!") to realizing how wonderful he is, with no plausible reason for the change of heart. It's as though she had a switch in her brain that randomly flipped from "shrewish haridan" to "devoted love interest." But at least she had a character arc. Everyone else just serves to push Feldman where he needs to go.

About the only bit of interest in the book is the huge infodump that forms Chapter 2, which seems oddly apt given current events:

There had been a medical lobby long before, but it had been a conservative group, mostly concerned with protecting medical autonomy and ethics. It also tried to prevent government control of treatment and payment, feeling that it couldn't trust the people to know where to stop. But its history was a long series of retreats.

It fought what it called socialized medicine. But the people wanted their troubles handled free--which meant by government spending, since that could be added to the national debt, and thus didn't seem to cost anything. It lost, and eventually the government paid most medical costs, with doctors working on a fixed fee. Then quantity of treatment paid, rather than quality. Competence no longer mattered so much. The Lobby lost, but didn't know it--because the lowered standards of competence in the profession lowered the caliber of men running the political aspects of that profession as exemplified by the Lobby.


2009/08/06

The Crying of Lot 48 by Thomas Pynchon

One of Pynchon's weaker works. After establishing an interesting mystery, the answers come too quickly and are nowhere near as good as the set-up. This is a book that could stand to be five times as long -- under 800 pages and Pynchon doesn't have enough canvas to express his craziness.

The fact that his new book doesn't require a forklift to carry has me worried.

Spacial Delivery by Gordon R. Dickson

The planet Dilbia lies in the Neutral Zone between the Federation and Klingon Empire, and according to the terms of the Organian Peace Treaty, control of it will go to whichever power can prove they can best develop the planet.

Er, no. Wrong universe. But the similarity is strong enough that I wonder if David Gerrold had crumbs of this book in his mind while writing "The Trouble with Tribbles," the episode that established the terms of the Organian Peace Treaty.

Anywho, Dilbia is a star system strategically located between human and Hemnoid space. Its inhabitants are a rustic, ursine race that is suspicious of both races, though they feel they have more in common with the bellicose Hemnoids.

When the human ambassador insults the Streamside Terror by saying he's not worthy of marrying the Mayor of Humrog's daughter, the Terror responds by kidnapping Ty Lamorc, a human sociologist who's been studying the Dilbians. To get her back, someone must first satisfy Dilbian honor by besting the Terror in a fight.

Enter John Tardy, a decathlete and biochemist who is drafted by the government for this most important mission. But the Terror lives high in the mountains. To reach him, John needs a guide. Someone who knows the wilderness. Someone who is so well respected that no one would dare hamper him.

Someone like Hill Bluffer, the postman.

And so John, now given the Dilbian nickname of "Half-pint Posted," is strapped to the back of a bipedal bear and carried through the wild country of Dilbia so he can eventually wrassle an even bigger bear.

Although written as a science fiction novel, the story resembles nothing so much as Robert E. Howard's Breckinridge Elkins series -- no one's quite as dim as ol' Breck, but both feel like a tall-tale that's being told with the same sensibility as the comic scenes in a John Ford movie. Which is great if you're a person who finds that sort of thing funny, and completely baffling if you aren't.

Me, I think Ken Curtis and Hank Worden are the best parts of The Searchers.


2009/08/05

Grrr, Arrrgh, Teenage Sex

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan



Mary's having a bad week. First Travis, the boy she's in love with, asks her best friend, Cass, to marry him. Then her mother strays too close to the fence around their village and gets bitten by a zombie. Mom opts for exile beyond the fence instead of being put to death. When Mary's brother Jed returns from patrol, he blames her for not killing mom herself and kicks her out of the house. With no home and no husband, there's only one option open to Mary -- the Sisterhood, the religious order that rules the village.

Well, the Sisterhood does give Mary one other choice -- she can join her mother beyond the fence. Not surprisingly, Mary chooses the Sisterhood, though her curiosity soon brings her in conflict with Sister Tabitha, the head of the order. Mary grew up with tales passed down from her great-great-great grandmother about life before the zombiepocalypse, and she dreams of one day finding the sea, but the Sisterhood claims that there is nothing beyond the fence but the forest and zombies.

One day the Sisters discover a girl beyond the gate. They keep her existence secret, fearing that the news will undermine their power. Mary manages to talk to the girl once, but learns little save that her name is Gabrielle and she came from the world outside. Then Gabrielle disappears.

A few days later a new zombie appears in the woods. This one is a rare kind of mutant zombie, faster and smarter than the others. And it wears a red jacket just like Gabrielle had. Soon thereafter the zombies breach the fence and overrun the village. Mary, Jed, Cass, Travis, and several others escape onto the path beyond the gate. The path is itself enclosed with a fence, so they're safe as they make their way from their village. But is there anything at the other end of the path? Can Mary use a clue left by Gabrielle to find a place of safety? Or was their village really humanity's last holdfast?

The Forest of Hands and Teeth is being marketed as a YA novel, which seems rather odd given that the zombie genre is typically the most nihilistic and gruesome in existence, beating even the nuclear war genre. Ryan keeps the gore fairly minimal -- entrails don't get strewn around like crepe paper at least -- but the bleakness remains high throughout, especially after Mary's village is destroyed. The ending is somewhat happy, in the way the original Dawn of the Dead was upbeat.

The YA aspect is most pronounced in the romantic subplot -- which at times seems to be the main plot -- which involves a love quadrangle between Mary, Cass, Travis, and Travis's brother. These scenes really made me appreciate how well J. K. Rowling handled the romances in the Harry Potter books. Here the romantic bits all read like that scene in Angel where Cordelia and Wesley try to explain Buffy and Angel's backstory.



Yet despite many scenes where Mary ends up with her body pressing against Travis or his brother, with long descriptions of their skin and body-heat, she never gets around to having sex, even when she's barricaded in a house with Travis for a month and they both declare their love to each other.

The world-building in the book is often weak. The villages and paths are surrounded by fences -- but fences that zombies can reach through, grab people, and bite them. I guess chain-link was too expensive during the apocalypse. No one's thought to build a second line of walls, ramparts, or entrenchments behind the fence, so all it takes is one breach to cause major problems for the village. Bill and Josella Masen could do better in a week, while these people have had at least six generations. During breaches, the villagers hide on flets until they can repel the zombies -- one village Mary encounters even has an elaborate series of walkways connecting the flets, yet the people still resided in houses under ordinary circumstances. No one's thought to build Baba Yaga huts as their primary dwellings.

Mary's village had a group called the Guardians who maintain the fences, including those along the paths outside the village. Mary's band gets beyond the maintained area in a few days of travel yet never encounters a path that's become impassable -- not even around abandoned villages. Robert Frost's statement about walls applies just as well to fences -- all it takes is one washout, or a persistent tree root, or even an acorn falling on the path, and in a few years the fence is going to fall over.

But for all these flaws, the book is enjoyable. And at least the zombies don't sparkle.