sff she-read #12: AMONG OTHERS, by Jo Walton

Among Others Yeah, you should read this book.

It hits a lot of formal sweet spots: It’s shelved as fantasy, which I appreciate, but it’s effectively a YA book, and although I’m glad for me that it wasn’t categorized that way (because I would probably have passed it over), I’m a little sad for the YA readers who won’t be reading it—and a little bit for Walton, because I think it could have been a bunker-buster. It’s also a proper British boarding school story in the vein of “Such, Such Were the Joys” or BOY or STAND BEFORE YOUR GOD (if it’s fair to call an essay and two memoirs the same thing as a novel), which I appreciate largely in comparison to Harry Potter, not that Harry Potter doesn’t do a decent job. And it’s a coming-of-age novel in a quiet way, and a love letter to classic sf, and also a Lupine puzzle where the things a common-or-garden fantasy author would have lavished thousands of words of hard-sweated description on are instead offscreen, in the past. So there’s a lot to like in its various approaches. And Mori Phelps is a great character—damaged and vulnerable in some ways, but also smart and opinionated; doesn’t suffer fools but sociable with her people. Plus great taste in sf, can see fairies.

On first reading, I’d say it’s not perfect for my taste; a bit too much is left to wonder about Mori’s mother, her twin, and the nature of the fairies, and the basic issue of the “reality” of magic is left totally unresolved. But I wouldn’t trust either of those judgments. First, because they’re both solidly de gustibus, and second, because I’m not sure they’re even right. If Gene Wolfe had written this, in fact, I’d be confident that they were wrong. And I think I’m willing to trust Walton as much as Wolfe. So I think I’ll be reading this again in due course, with a magnifying glass, paying close attention. And I think I’ll be giving it to my daughter in a decade and change, or sooner if I can.

sff she-read 2012, #11: DEATHLESS, by Catherynne M. Valente

The original she-read post.

In Yaichka, they say a child draws her first breath through her ears, her second through her eyes, and her third through her mouth. This is why it sometimes takes a moment for a baby to cry The first breath is for the mother, the second breath is for God, and the third breath is for the father. The breath through the mouth brings the most pleasure, and we forget immediately that we ever knew how to breathe any other way. When a child in Yaichka cries, his mother will pick him up and hoist him on her hip and laugh and say, Look at my little bearlet, breathing through his eyes again! And the child stops his crying because he likes to be called a bearlet.

Look, if that doesn’t get your blood up to do some reading, I can’t help you. I realize the right thing to do is furnish clever enumerations of Valente’s juxtapositions of the fantastic and the geopolitical, talk about the language and the imagery, then say how it’s really all about the characters. So that’s done. But be reasonable, at least—the muse can write a blank check for all the language and imagery and high-wire conceptual combination in the world and still not budget for that little twist of craft. But that’s where the magic happens, comrades.

“Yaichka” is from the Russian яйца, “egg.” If you don’t know why this is important, read the book.

sff she-read #8: MEMORY, by Linda Nagata; sff she-read #9: WHO FEARS DEATH, by Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

The original she-read post.

I always have more to say when I have complaints.

I hope to God Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu doesn’t need my help. She’s a published author and an academic, my two as yet unrealized aspirations, and if she does… well, shit. Linda Nagata, though, seems not to have written a book since MEMORY. Which is a huge shame; MEMORY has its weaknesses, especially toward the end, but Nagata is working in a space between Octavia Butler and Charles Stross that could really use more occupancy. (THE DANDELION KNIGHT might qualify, if I can ever convince anyone to show it the light of day, but then again it might not.)

Speaking of Octavia Butler, Okorafor-Mbachu is working, at least to my perceptions, in a Butlerian space as well, almost a fusion of the Patternist books and the Parable books — but inflected with some straight-out fantasy and a more contemporary politics, and at least as post-apocalyptic but somehow so much less bleak. I feel a little bit lazy making this analogy. I think Nagata and Okorafor-Mbachu are the only two writers I’d really describe as heirs to Butler, and they also happen to be two of the few women of color in sf. But I’ll stand by it. All three are preoccupied with bodies, their changes, and how those changes are tied to identity; all three are preoccupied with feral, fallen worlds, where civilization persists like lichen on rock, in tough but vulnerable patches; all three articulate a spirituality that fuses the mystical and the practical, that complicates and problematizes mysticism without succumbing to the urge to reduce it. It perhaps goes without saying that all write women of color who span the range of personality, sympathy, and power, some of whom triumph and some of whom die bad deaths.

All three need reading. Get to work.

(Edit w/r/t Linda Nagata: She hasn’t disappeared; she’s self-publishing now, still selling short stories and maintaining an active Web presence. And, based on photos, I may or may not have been wrong to say she’s a person of color—I made an assumption in the above post, which I’m leaving unedited for anthropological interest. Anyway, none of this changes my evaluation of MEMORY, and I’m glad to see she’s still writing.)

(Explanatory note on the selection of MEMORY: I started August picking up Sarah Monette’s THE VIRTU, which I mistakenly thought was the beginning of an independent trilogy and not a sequel to MELUSINE, which was theoretically my August book. I was a chapter or two in by the time I realized I had to be wrong. That was enough to make me suspect that Monette’s writing wasn’t for me; fairly or unfairly, I was getting HAVEMERCY PTSD. So I went to the branch of the library that had MELUSINE and made a compromise: I picked up a book by every female author in the sf section shelved between Kelly Link and Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu, including MELUSINE, and had a few-first-pages showdown. MEMORY narrowly beat out Neve Maslakovic’s OF DUCKS AND UNIVERSES, which I really do plan to go back and read, as well as MELUSINE, Elizabeth Lynn’s DRAGON’S WINTER, and Patricia McKillip’s THE BOOK OF ATRIX WOLFE. Probably I should have divided the alphabet up and done this with something like a three-letter interval centered on every other letter; but there you go.)

sff she-read #13: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN, by Kage Baker

The original she-read post.

I feel so stupid that my reviews don’t include book cover photos. This isn’t my favorite, but it’s what was on the library copy that I read, so it stays.

I read IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN on vacation several weeks ago, so my memory isn’t as good as it might be. The basics: IN THE GARDEN OF IDEN is centered around an approach to time travel that’s more than innovative enough to justify the Chapter 1 infodump and attendant slow start, and its point of view character is really well drawn and well written, with all the weaknesses you’d expect from what amounts to an eighteen-year-old godling. The romance is as sweet as it could be and as tragic as we pretty much know it has to be. If the book has a real defect, it’s that Mendoza’s professional objective, the botanical MacGuffin that brings her and her entourage to the garden of Iden, is not especially compelling—important, but not invested with any real emotional urgency. But I go back and forth on whether this is a defect. First, the book is and reads as an origin story, and so it makes some sense that the focus is on the force that events exert on Mendoza’s character rather than the significance of what she achieves. Second, maybe related, what she’s doing is her job. Sure, it’s a job that confers immortality and involves hiding things for your employer to find thousands of years in the future, but it’s still basically a job. So it makes some sense to frustrate the expectation that the quest will provide some deep emotional satisfaction. It provides the satisfaction of doing one’s job, which is a real but limited compensation; and there will be lots of quests to follow.

Actually, the one other potential defect is in the time-traveling conceit. The idea is that you can’t alter recorded history—so you can’t kill Hitler, but you can hide something for your boss to find a thousand years in the future. The storytelling function of this limitation is obvious, and you can lash it loosely to quantum physics and the Heisenberg uncertainty principle and so on to get a reasonably interesting take on reality as collective perception, but distracting questions immediately jump out. How long does history have to be recorded to be set in stone? If something was common knowledge in one era of human history and unknown in another, is it fair game? When does history stop for these purposes—remember, the Company’s future is some other future’s past. What about the butterfly effect—can you kill one of Hitler’s ancestors? If not, can you kill anyone? If not, what else can’t you do, or can you?

Anyway, I bring this up only because it nags; Baker may address these problems beautifully in subsequent books. I will certainly find out when I get the chance.

sff she-read #7: STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN, by Kelly Link

The original she-read post.

Miss Nevada has been abducted by aliens on numerous occasions. The stage spotlights appear to make her extremely nervous, and occasionally she addresses her interviewer as 9th Star Master. Miss Alabama has built her own nuclear device. She has a list of demands. Miss South Carolina wants to pursue a career in Hollywood. Miss North Carolina can kiss her own elbow. We try to kiss our own elbows, but it’s a lot harder than it looks on television. Please hold me tight, I think I’m falling.

Miss Virginia and Miss Michigan are Siamese twins. Miss Maryland wants to be in Broadway musicals. Miss Montana is an arsonist. She is in love with fire. Miss Texas is a professional hit woman. She performs exorcisms on the side. She says that she is keeping her eye on Miss New Jersey.

Miss Kansas wants to be a weather girl.

Miss Rhode Island has big hair, all tendrilly looking and slicky-sleek. The top part of her jiggles as she wheels herself on stage in an extremely battered-looking wheelchair. She just has the two arms, but she seems to have too many legs. Also too many teeth. We have seen her practicing water ballet in the hotel swimming pool. (Later, during the talent show, she will perform in a tank made of specially treated glass.) We have to admit Miss Rhode Island has talent but we have trouble saying her name. Too many sibilants. Also, at breakfast her breath smells of raw fish and at night the hoarse mutterings of spells, incantations, the names of the elder gods heard through the wall have caused us to lose sleep.

—“Shoe and Marriage”

Kelly Link’s STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN is by far the best book I’ve discovered this year. Not just in this little project, but in 2012 overall. Possibly also 2011. 1Q84 might (or might not) be just a little bit better, but only because Link lost me a bit on “Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose.” Nothing else comes close. (“Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose” is the first story of STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. If you don’t like it, persevere. You’ll thank me later.)

STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN is a short story collection. Link takes two main approaches: Mashups and deconstructions of myths and fairy tales, and surreal horror. The mashups and deconstructions are very good; “Travels With the Snow Queen” and “Flying Lessons” are particularly well done, and “Shoe and Marriage” has an out-spiraling riff on Miss America (quoted only in part above; you should not miss Miss New Jersey) that beats almost any other moment in the book for hilarity and fecundity of imagination. The horror, though, is the best I’ve read. “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” and “The Specialist’s Hat” are creepy in ways whose mechanisms I do not understand. I had bad dreams. Fiction doesn’t give me bad dreams. It turns out I like it when it does, I guess.

Link’s work is magic realism in the vein of the usual suspects, who to me are Borges, Bulgakov, Calvino, Harlan Ellison, Marquez, Murakami, maybe Saramago, and Gene Wolfe (which is not to imply that no female suspects exist, just that I haven’t read them). Her shade into horror is particularly reminiscent of Ellison (say “Croatoan” or “The Whimper of Whipped Dogs” or “All the Birds Come Home to Roost”) and Wolfe (notably “Seven American Nights”), which I mention mostly because it’s Wolfe and Ellison who benefit by the comparison. Anyway, the point of all this is just to say that it’s hard to imagine anyone who likes literary fiction not liking STRANGER THINGS HAPPEN. Her fantasy isn’t secondary-world or urban fantasy where you’ve got to absorb a new cosmology before your hit of story; her horror isn’t monster-based or gory in the ways that tend to squick people. If you don’t like being creeped out at all, then skip “Water Off a Black Dog’s Back” and “The Specialist’s Hat” (“Louise’s Ghost” is not horror), but for Christ’s sake read the rest.

I suppose I have two caveats for prospective lectors. One is that, if you yearn for explanations, prepare for disappointment. Personally, I love reading a story where I don’t quite get what’s going on, but think I could if I dug into it; that’s presumably either a source or a consequence of my affection for Gene Wolfe. The other is a certain sameness in the narrative voice. It’s a good voice; Link’s language is extremely clear and accessible, as you see above, her images vivid and startling but precise. So it’s not a huge defect. But it can snag the attention just a little bit if you read three or four stories in a row.

Which you will. Or, anyway, should.

(P.S. Mary Robinette Kowal was patient enough to come by my post on SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY and educate me a bit on what she was trying to do there. So we’ve got a bit of back-and-forth in the comments, of which her half at least is worth reading.)

sff she-read #5: SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY, by Mary Robinette Kowal

The original she-read post.

It is probably bad form to start a review with a long self-quote, but this is a relevant plank in my platform, so here goes. I wrote the following on the Amherst online community not long ago:

I think it’s popular for sf/f writers aspiring to middlebrowness and mass appeal to suggest that invention and extrapolation are somehow separable from the parts of the story that really matter, which are (mostly) character and theme. Or at least Brandon Sanderson said it once, and since I’m starting to be a little bit entertained by my own love-hate relationship with Brandon Sanderson, I find it an entertaining idea to take down. Anyway, it’s obviously wrong. I mean, it’s not all wrong; focusing on character and theme in a milieu that is incidentally genre will make for a better story than focusing on invention and extrapolation to the exclusion of character and theme. But it astounds me that anyone could think that Samuel Delany and Ursula Le Guin could have done the experiments with language and gender in purely mimetic settings that they did in STARS IN MY POCKET LIKE GRAINS OF SAND and THE LEFT HAND OF DARKNESS, or that the Malazan Book of the Fallen might just be a big war novel with funny weapons, or that THE SCAR could just as easily have been some kind of, I don’t know, Aubrey & Maturin spinoff? The point is that the best sf/f books spin out questions and problems that affect character and theme in ways that aren’t really accessible, or at least as fluently accessible, to mimetic fiction.

The invocation of Brandon Sanderson above is coincidental but autobiographically resonant (for me). Brandon Sanderson used to be the smartest person on Writing Excuses; now Mary Robinette Kowal is. I am a regular Writing Excuses listener even though I have read ELANTRIS, I AM NOT A SERIAL KILLER, and SCHLOCK MERCENARY and hated them all. OK, “hated” is too strong there, but it made the sentence snap in just the right way. Anyway, this surprised me. The only work from Sanderson, Wells, or Tayler that I’d read before I started listening to WE was Sanderson’s work on the Wheel of Time, which I thought was a huge step up from latter-day Robert Jordan, and I thought the three of them (and, later, Kowal) talked cogently and usefully about writing. So it was very weird to discover that their stuff was kind of bad. So, I’m not going to lie, I pinned some hopes to SHADES OF MILK AND HONEY (hereinafter SOMH). If it turned out to kick ass, then I could finally feel really good about listening to Writing Excuses. If not, well, I was going to have to accept that for some reason I like listening to writing advice from writers who are kind of bad.

The good news is that, at least based on SOMH, Kowal easily beats the other three for the beauty of her prose and the construction of her stories. The bad news is that SOMH isn’t really fantasy.

Lots of good books aren’t fantasy, of course; this didn’t have to be bad news. It’s bad news for SOMH because, stripped of the fantasy, you start comparing it to its obvious literary antecedents, and it comes up short. And not so much “short” as in “possibly not a classic with the centuries-long staying power of Jane Austen”; more like “short” as in “not nearly as weird and deep and powerful as JONATHAN STRANGE & MR NORRELL,” and unmistakably as in “really, really derivative of PRIDE & PREJUDICE.”

I’d really like to hear other opinions on this, preferably ones that show me how I’m wrong. I’m assuming that the sorts of people who would want to read SOMH are mostly people who’ve read Austen, and maybe their finer sensibilities have caught some sort of literary play that’s too sophisticated for my, let’s face it, Star Trek- and Dragonlance-reared critical faculties. But [SPOILERS] Jane is Elizabeth Bennet; Melody is Lydia; the Ellsworth parents are the Bennet parents; Livingston is Wickham; Vincent and Darcy clearly wear the same cologne. I suppose Dunkirk might be Bingley, but who cares? Anyway, the proof that SOMH is derivative comes from the fact that these character mappings practically spell out the plot and many of the patterns of interaction among characters. Magic, called “glamour,” is just another form of art in this world; its practical applications are explicitly disavowed, although there are hints that Jane and Vincent might develop those during their married life (not treated in this book). Its only purpose is to serve as a source of affinity between Jane and Vincent. Yes, there are a few things that wouldn’t have happened exactly the way they did in a non-magical world, but nothing meaningful about this story changes if “glamour” becomes painting or music.

Which is a shame, because Kowal can write. I don’t think I could imitate Austen’s diction as well as she does; I assume that means she can also write well in her mother tongue. And I know she’s smart — smarter than Brandon Sanderson, who himself has a lot of good ideas on Writing Excuses despite writing and promoting some genuinely terrible fiction. So the whole thing just leaves me a little befuddled. I would pick up GLAMOUR IN GLASS, just to see what happens, but I wouldn’t be wildly optimistic. Still, I would really like some Austen fans to read this and tell me what they think.

sff she-read #5: HAVEMERCY, by Jaida Jones and Danielle Bennett

The original she-read post.

This is entertaining fluff, if you can read past a certain amount of tiresome Orientalism. The premise is secondary-world Temeraire — the pan-European nation of Volstov, host to all the point-of-view characters and the dragons, has been at war with the pan-Asian nation of Ke-Han for a century and change, and no one really knows or cares why, they just go to war when they’re told. The characters are four men [SPOILERS], two of whom become gay lovers and two of whom discover that they’re long-lost brothers. The romance is probably what saves the book, if anything does, since the actual plot is pretty thin, although the comedy-of-manners stuff on the Volstovic side works reasonably well. Basically — I’m sorry, I know this is ridiculously spoilery, but it really does reduce to this — Ke-Han has cursed the Volstovic wizards and dragons, but luckily that can be cured by killing all the Ke-Han wizards. They conveniently all live in the same tower, so they can be killed all at once, which means the climax is right out of STAR WARS. The dragons are even made of metal.

There are nice touches here. I liked giving the districts women’s names, I liked a fair bit of the dialogue, the writing is snappy if occasionally cringey, the title is cool. But I don’t see much in the way of vision — secondary-world Napoleonic Wars is fine, but I can’t figure out the angle except that the trappings and iconography are fun. There’s no questioning, no subversion, no sense for theme. And at the level of basic entertainment, it fails on a couple points of consistency (e.g. the city is supposedly tolerant of homosexuality, but the wizard is exiled for a gay affair) and suffers really badly from the fact that the opposition is literally a faceless Asian horde. (To be fair, it looks like the sequel has some POV characters from Ke-Han.)

Anyway. Disappointing. And the guy who wrote THE LAST UNICORN really liked it? Oh well.

I think I’m going to need to start reviewing some books written by dudes. I’m reasonably certain I’m just fairly snotty overall, not particularly toward women writers, but I’m starting to feel bad about poking holes in all these books that I’m supposedly reading to broaden my horizons. Unfortunately, even this relatively light project is taking up an uncomfortable fraction of my free time as it is…

sff she-read #4: THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS, by N. K. Jemisin

The original she-read post.

I came in wanting to like this book, and at times I did. Jemisin’s writing is good, her main character is well textured, her descriptions of horribly deformed creatures and gods and sex with gods and all the other crazy fantasy stuff are well done. The high-concept gloss of the book is good as well — here’s a succession drama in which it’s [SPOILERS] immediately made evident that the character we’re rooting for has no chance of winning. But the worldbuilding is thin, and most of the supporting characters are thin, and I just didn’t quite get pulled into the dream.

I’m genuinely starting to wonder whether publishers and agents are exerting pressures that work against what I like. I mean, this is the first book in a trilogy, and obviously Jemisin has more up her sleeve; but I’m trying to figure out whether she wanted to write the doorstopper that it feels like this needs to be. The book starts in an uncomfortable compromise between in medias res (which would have been when Yeine was well into politicking, one assumes) and the sort of “here’s the status quo” beginning you’d find in, say, Tolkien, that I guess is viewed, possibly rightly, as boring. But it means we begin with all the incomprehension of in medias res without the excitement that would come from actual suspense.

The book is called THE HUNDRED THOUSAND KINGDOMS but we only ever teleport once, briefly, to one or two of those kingdoms; the main sense of place we get is the city of Sky, without any of the texture of domination that we could get going through its vassal nations — which is the sort of thing one could work into a long journey narrative, if there were other ways to keep it interesting. We’re meant, I think, to appreciate the intricacies of palace politics, but there’s really only one other player in the political game and she has Yeine so far outclassed that she barely understands what’s happening as it happens. We’re meant, I think, to appreciate the multifariousness of the gods who serve the Amn people of Sky, but I don’t think we ever see a god take an order from anyone other than a main character, nor do we see more than the four or five gods who are recurring characters. We’re meant to feel the contradiction between Yeine’s concept of her mother and how her mother was (and turns out always to have been); but we have to be told, there’s no sense for it. We’re meant to be overawed at the immense weight of history behind the elder gods, but despite that weight of history, everything consequential that involves them is happening for the first time.

This is so much about texture, and my own barely-above-threshold reactions. I’ve tried to anatomize them here, but I’m not even a little bit sure I’ve done it right. And maybe really deep worldbuilding is not what everybody asks from fantasy. But I think that’s the point at which I failed to connect with this book. For better or worse, I could have forgiven the problems with characterization; Yeine, Nahadoth, Dekarta, and Sieh are drawn competently enough that Relad’s flaccidity and Scimina’s uncomplicated evil could have been forgivable, especially since the real drama is more about Yeine’s discovery of her mother. But that drama isn’t made especially trenchant. And this world that we are told is gigantic and manifold and god-infested is, to my eyes, a Potemkin village. (Which every fantasy is, in actuality — but it’s the trompe-l’oeil that seizes the synapses.)

Since it’s fortuitously apropos: For a couple of the bones of an argument against worldbuilding, see this provocative bit by M. John Harrison, courtesy of Phil Tucker. I’m not convinced about the observation, but Harrison is of course exactly right about the prescription. Note also that his argument is correlative, not causal. He describes a relationship that happens to be; he gives no account of why it is, if he even thinks it is, obligatory.

sff she-read #3: FEED, by Mira Grant

The original she-read post.

I almost quit FEED, and on balance I’m glad I didn’t.

FEED is about three bloggers in their mid-twenties, jockeying for position in an America that has reached what accommodations it can with a quarter-century-old zombie epidemic. The presentation is smart and thoughtful: Zombification is an ironic consequence of the mixing of two genetically engineered viruses, but instead of the usual super-soldier serum or bioweapon gone wrong, the epidemic’s constituent viruses are actually effective cures for two modern plagues, cancer (so now everyone smokes) and the common cold. Grant has thought enough about this that the “disease” angle feels real, rather than a gesture indicating “OK, guys, there isn’t any other magic in this book.” Everyone has the virus, which of course has philosophical implications; the major practical implication is that you can’t get rid of zombification even by killing all the zombies, because anyone who dies will rise and, at least in theory, anyone can undergo “spontaneous amplification” and convert without dying. But there are also nice details, both about the virus’s interaction with mammalian bodies and the government’s response to the virus, which I think I’ll leave the reader to discover. The similarity of Grant’s premise to every other bit of zombie literature is lampshaded rather than conspicuously ignored — people use the “Z” word, George Romero is considered “the accidental savior of the human race,” and the three main characters are named Georgia, Georgette (a blonde who goes by “Buffy“), and Shaun. So the canvas is prepared pretty well.

The three main characters are bloggers, who’ve gained new status in a world that feels it was betrayed by mainstream news organizations, which downplayed the zombie epidemic when it started. Internet content is also hugely in demand because the majority of the populace doesn’t leave the house except at necessity. Georgia and Shaun are adoptive siblings more or less raised to the profession by their parents, who are also bloggers; Shaun is an “Irwin,” who takes a daredevil nature-show approach to the undead, and Georgia is a “Newsie,” who reports the straight facts that most of the world is too scared to go out and see. Their friend Buffy is a “Fictional” who writes poetry and stories. They’ve applied to be the press corps of Senator Peter Ryman, a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, and the book starts to get interesting when they accept the gig. We see most of the book from Georgia’s point of view.

It’s a flawed book. The opening, after which I was thinking about quitting, is a generic action sequence that feels like it was inserted as a hook; it does establish the broad strokes of the two main characters, but that’s done amply elsewhere, and the events are so clearly unconnected to any possible plot that it just doesn’t feel worth reading. There are a couple of similar meta-level problems elsewhere as well, notably a torrent of interstitial exposition slowing the action down in maybe the first quarter of the book, and a few pages of defensive writing later on where the main characters snappily preempt all possible suggestions that they might have planted a bit of crime scene evidence.*

Where we could have used a bit more defensive writing is in the exegesis of the events of the book (a series of catastrophes, mostly zombie attacks), which we’re meant to understand to have been driven by the rather muddily presented goals of a character whose villainous nature Grant doesn’t even try to conceal. The problem is that it’s not especially clear how the incredible carnage he’s inflicted advances his goals at all. The shocking revelation at the end of the book is likewise deflated by its incomprehensibility — it’s a horrible thing, to be sure, but so much so that it seems senseless. I suspect that it all makes sense in Grant’s notes and will become clearer in future books (at least one sequel, DEADLINE, is already out), but honestly, I don’t really have much patience for the spoooooky conspiracy. I’m also not wild about the portrayal of religion, which seems to exist only as an outlet for people to do terrible, insane shit in God’s name, but that’s potentially attributable to bias on Georgia’s part.

What Grant does well at a finer grain (i.e. moment-to-moment, versus the broad-brush stuff I’ve praised earlier) is character, when she works at it. Georgia is sort of Katniss Everdeen meets Spider Jerusalem**; Shaun is more like Steve Irwin meets John Gabriel, and the moment-to-moment tension between them serves as a great counterpoint to the deep, quiet love that keeps them together. I think it was an excellent decision on Grant’s part to focus on Georgia and Shaun’s love as siblings, rather than forcing a romance on one or the other; it makes the book’s moments of emotional payoff work that much better. Buffy is not quite so well drawn, and the motivation of her more consequential actions is maybe a bit thinner than we’d like, but she still basically works. Ryman and his wife are perhaps implausibly well-adjusted for a presidential candidate and his wife (and Ryman is unrecognizable as a Republican), but that’s at least acknowledged, and their alliances and antagonisms with Georgia, Shaun, and Buffy are believable emotionally and politically. There are characters who don’t work so well — the other Republican candidates, notably — but of course we stay for the main characters. And so I stayed.

Which brings me to a point. In a lot of ways, FEED is the worst of the three she-read books so far this year, and kind of bad in an objective sense. I haven’t spent much time on the plot, but it really does sour the enjoyment of the other things I’ve talked about at more length. But it shares more than a damaged, asexual point-of-view character with THE HUNGER GAMES — workmanlike-at-best writing is another thing, but the main thing is that I python-swallowed the last half the 550-page paperback over the course of three hours last night when I should have been sleeping. I wanted to know how it ended. I actually don’t consider this sort of “addictiveness” a cardinal virtue in books. I’m not pulled through, say, the Book of the New Sun or (these days) 1Q84 by suspense, but I enjoyed those books more than I enjoyed FEED — or THE HUNGER GAMES, or the last books in Harry Potter or the Dark Tower, all of which had the same sort of drive and are obviously not as good as a lot of books that don’t.

But even if it’s not a cardinal virtue, it sure beats boredom. And so although Mira Grant is not as good a writer as Elizabeth Bear, I probably will pick up DEADLINE in due time. Just to see what happens.

***

* Craft note: I don’t know if that’s the kind of thing most readers notice; I pick up on it and maybe even false-alarm to it because I do it all the time when I write things with complex plots, after which I have to sand it down in revision. I think the key to avoiding it, if there is one other than “develop a feel,” is to have some give and take between accuser and accused. People’s reference template for this sort of dialogue is “Accuser is aggressive, accused passively defends,” and the reversal “Accuser insinuates, accused takes the offensive” feels fresh, but it isn’t. The basic orientation is fine, but it feels more real if the accuser can at least make the accused stop and think once or twice. (Back to post.)

** Someone’s going to tell me that Grant’s never read a word of TRANSMET in her life, but for my money the thumbprint of Warren Ellis is all over this book, sometimes to an uncomfortable degree. The emphasis on ubiquitous, constant recording comes straight out of TRANSMET, TWO-STEP, and what I remember of the never-published LISTENER, which Ellis posted to his Livejournal a while back; the repeated references to Hunter S. Thompson (among, granted, other great journalists like Edward R. Murrow, who also gets a nod); the interview with Ryman’s main primary opponent, which echoes Jerusalem’s interviews with the Beast and the Smiler; the incident at the Ryman ranch, recalling the Smiler’s response to flagging poll numbers in his reelection campaign. (Admittedly, there are no bowel disruptors.) The ONION AV Club called FEED “THE WEST WING by way of George Romero,” but it’s much closer to early TRANSMET by way of WORLD WAR Z — another great example of very thoughtful, detail-oriented zombie extrapolation that’s also left a lot of marks on FEED. (Back to post.)

sff she-read #2: ZOO CITY, by Lauren Beukes

The original she-read post.

“Think of it as my mascot. Let’s say you have some lucky rabbit’s foot. I have my Penguin. You keep your rabbit’s foot safe in your pocket. I keep my Penguin safe in customised body armour.” — Dehqan Baiyat

Fun fact about Lauren Beukes: Her last name apparently has two syllables, “byoo-kəs.” I learned this from her Writing Excuses appearance, so it’s dimly possible that non-Mormons will pronounce it differently. But she didn’t correct the Mormons. So I suspect it’s right, and that the Mormons were speaking our language all along.

Fun fact #2: She is in fact a white South African, not a black American. Presumably the fact that I assumed the latter based on the cover of ZOO CITY says more about me than it does about her.

Anyway, I sort of hesitate to put the above as the flagship quote for ZOO CITY, because I don’t want to suggest that only appreciators of Warren Ellisoid humor will appreciate the book. But it does highlight one of the cool things about Beukes, which is that she knows her big magical conceit — namely, and I think I give little away by this, y’know, look at the cover, but OK, SPOILERS, that people who commit crimes (loosely defined) are burdened and marked by mysterious animal companions, usually accompanied by a vaguely Xanthian magic talent — has room for humor. Hence, a film-school dropout turned terrorist with a Penguin (animal companions are never named but always capitalized) in customized body armor. Who is pretty much in there just for color. I like that kind of color.

Beukes is content not to get too wonky about the metaphysics of aposymbiosis (or “animalling”), and the alternate early-twenty-first-century milieu makes that plausible; they’re figuring out the limiting conditions on aposymbiosis much as we’re still figuring out AIDS and cancer. But, of course, you sort of know that the plot simmering behind the disappearance of one half of a hit pop duo is going to have to involve animals somehow. And it does.

And I’m realizing that, although I liked ZOO CITY considerably better than ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS (and also better than the recent installments by George R. R. Martin and Pat Rothfuss, which is just to say that I’m not merely saying Beukes is good for a girl), my impressions are qualitatively similar in the end. Really cool animating conceit; really good worldbuilding, better than ATWS; spots of really beautiful (or brutal), poetic writing and imagery, and a first-person voice that pulls you along; but something of a mismatch between the rather intricate plot dynamics and the canvas on which they take place — in part, again, because the way animalling works isn’t well-specified enough that you can work out what’s going to happen (or, if you’re bad at prognosticating like I am, look back and say “I can see where that came from”). You can get a lot of it, in fairness — the source of Zinzi’s mysterious emails, the reason for Odi’s reclusiveness, probably even the nature of Maltese and Marabou’s magic talents. But the basic reason all this stuff is happening hinges on a magical wrinkle that isn’t ever (I think) foreshadowed.

Maybe this is a little bit necessary, I don’t know. I’ve been going back to the example of JHEREG that I made in my post on ALL THE WINDWRACKED STARS, and I have to admit (SPOILERS for JHEREG, the book was written in 1980, deal) that there is one vaguely deus-ex element in that equation, and that’s Pathfinder. Without Pathfinder’s ability to protect Aliera’s soul from the Morganti weapon planted on Laris, Vlad’s solution falls apart, and I don’t think that ability was well foreshadowed in JHEREG. It feels less deus-ex in the context of the later books, where it’s clear that all Great Weapons have this property (not just the one Aliera happened to own) and where, whatever the initial reason for them, in general all the things Brust did in JHEREG are pretty smoothly integrated into a not completely specified but very coherent and compelling cosmology. But I digress.

The other thing that didn’t quite work for me in the climax of ZOO CITY was the sudden explosion of brutality. We’re not quite in “everybody dies” territory, but there is a lot of gruesome maiming and death of named characters in a very short interval. This is not necessarily untenable on its own; the Red Wedding in A STORM OF SWORDS is a great example of pulling it off very well. I think it ties into the issue of motivation. The motives behind the Red Wedding are absolutely clear; the reason it’s such a coup is not that it’s brutal, but that it’s a very smart move that’s perfectly in character for the plotters. In ZOO CITY, you don’t get the same satisfaction from the climax, because it isn’t as well motivated either by character or by (anything you could reasonably know about) circumstance.

It’s occurred to me that you might very reasonably discount my opinion on the climax because, well, I’m not African. Beukes’ Johannesburg is presented pretty even-handedly as an early-twenty-first-century city; the animalled live in the crappy parts, so that’s where we dwell, but there are nice parts, and the overall impression is not post-apocalyptic or anything. But, for all that, we are not spared the horrors happening in more northerly parts of Africa — they come mostly through the history of one character, and don’t figure at all in the main plot, but they do serve as reminder that even civilized Jo’burg is much closer to and more inflected by all of this than, say, Detroit would be. (Somewhat weirdly, goings-on in the Congo and Rwanda are much more salient in ZOO CITY than South Africa’s history of apartheid; in fact, Beukes makes what I imagine to be the conscious choice to use “black” and “white” very sparingly as descriptors of characters, although you can figure most of them out. I don’t know if this is a flaw, it’s just a little odd. Maybe this is an American obsession with race coming to the fore? Maybe American reviewers don’t really have the moral standing to get snotty about other countries with histories of apartheid? All very real possibilities.) Anyway, the point of all this is that a sudden explosion of brutality for no especially comprehensible reason, with gratuitous casualties and no particular aesthetic payoff (not that it isn’t well written — what I mean is there’s no awful moment of, I don’t know, call it coalescence, a la the Red Wedding, where suddenly find yourself watching the last fibers give way in the guillotine’s rope), may have more of a place in an African journalist’s world view than it does in that of, say, a guy who’s lived in affluent suburbs of the northeast US and studied or worked at well-heeled private universities literally his entire adult life. This is not especially to reverse my judgment on the climax — I still feel like there was something missing. But I’m prepared to concede regional differences.

Anyway. This is my version of a four-star review, maybe four and a half. I will definitely pick up MOXYLAND, hopefully sometime in 2012, and will eagerly await whatever Lauren Beukes writes next.