BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #18: The Leviathan Trilogy by Scott Westerfeld

I’ll always admit to being a sucker for a pretty cover, and the pictures on the front of Leviathan grabbed me right off. Then I started reading. Five pages in, I bought it, took it home, and spent the rest of the night finishing it. The next chance I got, I purchased the next two from Amazon.

The central conceit is clear and attractive: The world is filled with two rival philosophies and technologies: the Clanker countries of Germany and Austro-Hungary with their walkers and mechanized war machines, versus Darwinist Britain and their allies’ genetically engineered “beasties”, such as whale/jellyfish airships and parrot/lizard messengers. Other nations have their own mix of the two systems depending on their alliance. Battlesuits vs. weird science!

Leviathan’s story revolves around two central characters of opposite background and loyalties. One is Alex, the son and heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. After his father, the Emperor Ferdinand, is murdered, Alex is forced to go into hiding with a single battered mech and a few retainers. On the other side is Deryn Sharp, a young girl who wants nothing more than to serve on one of Britain’s flying battleships, and so disguises herself as a boy named Dylan. Through a series of events the two bump into each other, and then the real fun begins.
Alex is focused and too conscious of his responsibility and vulnerable status as the possible ruler of a nation at war, while Dylan is having the time of her life learning about working on a living war machine and the amazing weapons of the Darwinists while keeping her secret safe.

The second book, Behemoth, follows their adventure to the officially neutral Ottoman Empire, who the English are trying to woo over to their side from Clanker influence. However, things go badly when the Alex and Dylan are separated on dangerous adventures and a nosy American reporter gets involved. The seeds of revolution are sown, and the world inches closer to war. Afterwards, the crew and Alex are told their next stop will be Russia and the Far East on an important trip that may end the war, and “Dylan” discovers that her feelings for Alex may be deeper than she expected, but that he can never return them given his royal class.

Goliath opens with the airship Leviathan flying over the steppes of Russia en route to pick up a passenger who it is rumored may hold the key to stopping the war. After discovering an area of terrible devastation, Alex and Dylan meet the mystery man: Nikola Tesla, who says he has built a weapon capable of destroying any city on earth at his command. The two protagonists are torn: Alex sees it as a way to end possible bloodshed, while “Mr” Dylan Sharp is less sure. After a stop off in Japan where Teslas’ machine shows its amazing power, they are ordered to neutral America (Clanker North, Darwinist South) where he will build a full-scale model of his new machine under the watchful eye of newspaper baron William Randolph Hearst. However, after arriving they receive word that the Germans are determined to stop Tesla’s machine from being built at any cost…

I really enjoyed this series. I’ll confess when I started reading and recognized that they were YA books I was a trifle hesitant, since I’d pushed myself through the first Twilight book to considerable mental duress. However, I was pleasantly surprised. Westerfeld never talks down to his audience, and his characters are clean and complex. Dylan/Deryn and Alex are equal stars of the books, with Alex’s tactical skills and aristocratic training nicely balancing her fearlessness and keen observations. She’s never made to be less competent or intelligent, and the friendship between them grows very naturally, as do their reactions to each new revelation and crisis. The amazing illustrations by Keith Thompson are a treat in and of themselves and give a fun “penny dreadful” feeling to the story.

The weirdness of the world around them is likewise smoothly introduced through their eyes, and the danger of being involved in a world at war isn’t minimized because of the youth of the protagonists. Of course, you know neither one will be killed, but you’re on the edge of your seat regardless. The way their relationship grows and matures throughout the trilogy is likewise well handled, and the inevitable “discovery” of Deryn’s true nature is handled in a fresh way.

There’s plenty of action too, and I really enjoyed the descriptions of the various beasties and machines. I’ve never had a great interest in technology and so would likely be a Darwinist if I had the choice. All in all this series is extremely well written and entertaining for readers of any age.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #17: Shades of Gray by Jasper Fforde

First off, if you’re looking for that sex-bondage book, this ain’t it. I know, I also had to double-check the title when someone suggested it. I wonder if Mr. Fforde received any messages from people who made the same mistake. As with any book I review, if or when I get my hands on the next one I’ll review that one as well, and link it up to this. Shades of Gray also has some of the best cover art I’ve ever seen.

The story revolves around a world named Chromatacia and a character named Eddie Russett. In this world (or nation; Fforde never really shows how large this country might be) worth and social status are measured by your color perception. Grays can only see monochrome and are menials, and the progression up the ladder goes all the way up to the Reds. What you can see also determines who you can and can’t marry. For example, a Green and a Red could never be a legal couple, and marriages are planned based on the color perception of any offspring; marrying for love without considering the chromatic consequences is seen as a sure path to familial destruction. There was an event, Something That Happened, and the world was changed from whatever it was before, to the color system dystopia implemented by a man named Munsell.

Russert is sent to the remote town of East Carmine to perform a chair census as punishment for a practical joke, and therein meets a variety of strange characters, such as The Apocryphal Man, who is ignored by law since history is illegal, and Jane, a Gray who has a cute nose and will punch you if you mention it. The ironclad social levels and arrangements, at first whimsical and odd, are later discovered by Eddie to have a darker hue, and he must fight against everything everyone know is right to prove the true-blue truth. And possibly to avoid being killed by vicious swans.

It’s much in the same style as Fforde’s other stories and series: funny, weird, and deftly created. He has a gift for building a world in just a few descriptions, leaving your mind to fill in the blanks. Fforde doesn’t linger on the strangeness of the worlds he makes, instead the reader allows the continuous layers of oddity to wash over them until it all seems natural and at the same time each one is a fresh revelation.

The plot is carefully laid out in a complex society, and I wasn’t surprised when I found out it was the first in a series-such an entrenched and strange world couldn’t (and shouldn’t) be upended in the space of one novel. The characters are likewise sparingly described, but you don’t care. They’re still good, and keep the plot moving along briskly.

Again, characteristically of Fforde, he has a host of various humorous and interesting references, such as the name Munsell itself, the various town and people’s names as colors, and the idea that the place you are sent before you “move on” being the Green Room. The nonsense is never wasted either, such as the fear of swans and the rationing of spoons. Each little tidbit builds the world even deeper and adds color to it. Or perhaps shades of meaning.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #15: Ruled Britannia by Harry Turtledove

One of the most interesting questions is “What if?” It’s one that has spawned millions of stories and ideas, be they DC comics’ Elseworlds or theological arguments. Harry Turtledove (who has gained the title “The Master of Alternate History”) is a very well-known author who has made a career out of exploring this question in a variety of ways as it relates to turning points or possibilities in world history, such as the South winning the civil war, or aliens invade in the middle of WWII.

Ruled Britannia is about one of those places-the invasion of England by Spain and the Armada in order to overthrow Elizabeth I. In our reality the force was destroyed and dispersed by the English, with more than a third of the 151 ships never returned to Spain. The victory was acclaimed by the English as their greatest since Agincourt.

In this world, however, the professional soldiers of the Spanish Empire made it ashore and soon have a tight grip on England, though Scotland and Wales are not mentioned and Irish troops are brought in to help keep the peace, counting on their antipathy for the English. The Catholic faith is forced upon the people upon pain of “the question” by the English Inquisition, and it is worth your life to even mention the imprisoned queen.

One of the citizens paying careful lip service to the superiority of Spanish rule is a playwright named William Shakespeare. He is, like everyone else, just trying to get by, providing folks with laughter and chills by way of his comedies and dramas such as The Prince of Denmark and Love’s Labors Won. However, his skill with words are soon requested for a bigger and much more significant task-to stir his fellow citizens to rise up and throw off the nine-year dominion of the invaders by asking the question “To be free, or not to be free?”

Not much is known about Shakespeare’s personality, so he’s an excellent blank slate for a man with an eye for the everyday detail of his world, and connections with a wide spectrum of people. Indeed, it’s his modest fame as a playwright that makes him a subject of interest for the Inquisition and the Spanish, not to mention his friendship with the brilliant and unabashedly scandalous homosexual playwright Kit Marlowe (who once supposedly said that “Christ was a bastard and his mother dishonest [unchaste]” and that “the Angel Gabriel was bawd [pimp] to the Holy Ghost”), and who is unsurprisingly not popular with the theocratic Spanish intelligence services, both for his preferences and for his possible connection to anti-Spanish factions.

It should come as no surprise that a book from a veteran writer is clean and flowing, but here the dialogue especially shines. It is sometimes a little hard to follow until you get into the rhythm of iambic pentameter. There are a lot of sneaky quotes from Shakespeare’s work, as well as other plays (and spotting them, even slightly altered, is half the fun). The many puns and the clever wordplay make any scene with Shakespeare and his friends a real pleasure to read.

The story and the conflict are gripping, with the political and religious forces swirling about, personified on the one hand by the ruthless and shadowy ringleaders of the English liberty movement, and on the other by the (real life) Spanish soldier and playwright Lope de Vega, who is interested in the theatre, but also a zealous servant of Queen Isabelle and assigned to uncover any traitors among the actors. He’s so likeable and roguish that it’s easy to forget that he’d sadly condemn Shakespeare to torture if evidence of heresy was uncovered.

The other characters, such as Shakespeare’s fellow players Richard Burbage and the clown Will Kemp (also historical characters, as are most everyone mentioned) are also quite well written. Turtledove does a fine job of likewise painting the world to such a fragrant degree that I winced every time a chamber pot was emptied out a window to splash on the street below.

On the face of it, play-writing isn’t an activity that has a lot of excitement attached to it, but Turtledove manages to fill every page with suspense and intrigue, and the ending feels satisfying, and I even felt that a good snapshot was given of a period and conflict in history that does feel plausible, or at least possible. And of course one of the most important questions when reviewing any book by so prolific an author: What if I read more of his work? That would be a better world, indeed.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #16: The New Annotated Dracula by Leslie Klinger

Way way back, in the time before Smartphones ruled the earth, I took a course in college (then Western Maryland, now McDaniel) about horror literature. I loved it, ate it up, and tried to participate in every class discussion. I didn’t do well in that class, but it was fun. That class was also the first time it dawned on me how deep some stories could be, and I own a large part of that realization to one book: The New Annotated Dracula, edited by the brilliant Leslie S. Klinger and an introduction by Neil Gaiman, the God of Stories. The is going to be an odd review, simply because it is about a reference book of sorts, not a straight story.

The basic thrust of the book is a dissection of the Dracula story as if it were historical fact. Klinger has in fact seen and examined the original manuscript of Stoker’s story, and weaves the alterations made between that and the finished novel into his work, as well as carefully underlining and examining the various mistakes, omissions and changes. I’ll be discussing a few of them here, so if you haven’t for some reason read Dracula, spoilers ahead and shame on you.

One of my favorite threads that Klinger pulls at in the story is Quincy Morris, and the possibility of his alliance with the Count (Klinger isn’t the first person to make this suggestion, but he does it very cleanly, bringing the reader’s attention to Morris’ odd behavior throughout the book.). An American from Texas, he is the most mysterious of the protagonists, and questions surround him, such as: where does he get his money? Why does Lucy die after receiving a transfusion from him? And he is the last to see Renfield, a traitorous underling of Dracula, alive, as well as the only one to “die” after the final battle, and thus raising the idea that Morris is in league with the vampire. In a previous version of the “Harker Papers” as Klinger names the book, “the Texan” and the Count arrive to visit Dr. Seward together and that he earlier volunteers to visit Transylvania and corresponds with Jonathan and Mina by letter. Why the change in story? Klinger postulates that Dracula approached Stoker after he had collected the story and persuaded him to make changes so as to conceal the true facts of the case, such as the names of those involved and the location of Dracula’s castle. After all, we never learn anything about Dracula first hand.

Klinger’s work is meticulous and admirable, comparing the dates used in the various entries and showing why some of them must be incorrect, as well as educating the reader on the customs, ideas, and famous folks referenced in the story. He takes the story piece by piece, even comparing directions given by the characters to their real-world locations, and performs an amazing feat: he makes the story better. Examining the story of Count Dracula as if it was a real event adds luster to the entire narrative, instead of weakening it in the expected manner of a critical examination.

Like I said in the beginning-this book made me think more deeply about all of the stories I’d read in a way I hadn’t really been aware of before that, for which I’m very grateful to Mr. Klinger, and moreover that there are multiple ways to look at any narrative. What does this character want? Where is their behavior leading to in the end? What aren’t we being told? Basically, if you want to know more about Dracula, this is your book.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #14: The Wolf’s Hour by Robert McCammon

I’d honestly never heard of Robert McCammon (which says more about me than him) until I picked up a copy of The Wolf’s Hour at a small bookstore while on vacation a few years back. I was attracted to it immediately, because werewolves are my favorite of the movie monsters in general. Suffice it to say I’ll watch or read almost anything with werewolves in it at least once (except Twilight). Quick movie recommendation: Dog Soldiers.. Great acting (Sean Pertwee is excellent), great monsters.

Anyway, the book has two fairly simple ideas at its heart: 1) the secret agent, sneaking into Nazi Germany to discover a new weapon and 2) a man battling with his own inner beast. And yet, it works very well. McCammon manages to keep the adventure moving, painting vivid pictures and exciting adventures.

His characters are not the deepest in my opinion-the werewolf, named Michael Gallatin, doesn’t honestly go through much development; he’s an an action hero, there to stop the baddies with his fists and fur and provide sweet loving to the war-weary beautiful ladies who cross his path, of which there are no less than three in the book, each with their own detailed sex scene after a pretty lackluster seduction. Heck, there isn’t even much to the guy except that he’s a werewolf. He’s mysterious even to the reader, and we don’t seem to get much of a peek inside his head, wolf or man. Of course, going up against hardcore evil like Nazis doesn’t really leave a lot of room for moral ambiguity and pondering about the rightness of his actions. The ladies themselves do each get a bit of personality and aren’t interchangeable apart from their interest in waking up next to a guy who probably smells like a wet dog after a shower.

He’s also joined partway on this quest by Mouse, an ex-Army cook who provides the “average guy” viewpoint and someone for Mikhail/Michael to look after and swear to avenge when he inevitably gets killed and then isn’t mentioned again. The baddies are the stereotypical Nazis, with overblown cruelty, weird henchmen and amazing plots, almost themselves right out of a Bond film. Indeed, I could easily see Daniel Craig in the main role if Michael’s black hair and green eyes were not mentioned so often, in both his man and fuzzy shapes. It does add an interesting twist to the werewolf idea when it’s mentioned that Michael ages faster while changed (“wolf years”), so that he shouldn’t do it too often or for too long.

Michael’s Russian backstory is well-drawn and vivid. McCammon has a real gift for painting a scene you can visualize easily. His description of the life of Mikhail’s pack is clean and charming, while never losing the sense of underlying strangeness that they have as werewolves, and the impending doom you can see just over the horizon in Michael’s wistful memories. However, Michael himself usually just reacts to incidents, and his personality and sense of self isn’t described before his change, so we don’t get to see too much of what he was like pre-wolf. His adolescence in these surroundings is also glossed over, as is what would be for me the most interesting part-his readjustment to society and how he comes to the attention of the British Secret Service.

But again, it doesn’t matter. It’s not a philosophy book or a coming-of-age story or an origin story, it’s James “Wolfman” Bond ripping the throats out of Gestapo agents with his teeth. I’d call it an ideal beach-book for guys, if that’s not too sexist-sounding, and I’m amazed no one picked it up for a popcorn flick at some point. And it did very much make me want to go for a run in the forest and howl at the moon.

Solitary

So, I’m thinking of taking a big step-writing a short story (with the above as title) that will hopefully, with love and attention, become a long story. It’s going to be a crime/horror yarn with an idea that’s been humming in my brain for a while: what if there was a killer with no victims? He’s seen in their area, he has a shaky alibi, the people vanish with evidence of foul play-but there’s never a body. It grew out of an observation I made one day while out to lunch (and I was eating, too). I saw an old doorway, one of those entrances to a downstairs apartment or storage room. The door was dusty and old-no idea when it had been used. And I imagined a group of cops breaking it down and finding a body that had clearly been only recently killed. They could be anywhere, hidden behind a door you pass everyday…..

It’s an interesting idea, I think, but it needs some work, and I’ve never really written a “villain” character, as much as I like to read them. It will be an interesting challenge. I’ll add updates as I get bits done. First up: characters. The problem, and one I’m actually oddly looking forward to beating, is now not to make anyone too evil or too heroic. I’ve not had the right life experiences to capture either mindset, and so building them will be something worth doing, even if I fail at it.

And then of course there’s that old creative boogeyman: how to make it unique, different, stand out from the crowd? At the same time, you don’t want that “hook” to be too obvious or silly: “He’s a cop, but he’s a black gay leper in an iron lung!” A book’s plot should likewise be simple to sum up, but not always easy to categorize; the movie trick of framing a story as “X meets Y” whether that’s Godzilla and Harry Potter or boy and girl works fine for a visual medium, but the human imagination is thousands of times more complex than any movie, and so it needs more grist for the mill.

I’ll add updates as I get bits done.

BlackRabbit’s #CBR5 Review #13: The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl

Insanity is often the logic of an accurate mind overtasked. Oliver Wendell Holmes

So I’m starting a (hopefully) solid job and decided to keep my brain in fighting trim by getting back to the writing as well. To that end I picked up a bag’o’books at a yard sale. Most were installments in the Pern series by Ann McCaffrey, which I’m working my way through and may talk about at some point in the future, as they’re…odd in a few ways. But another book I picked up was The Dante Club.

I have not read the previous book, nor anything else by Matthew Pearl, but this was a decently entertaining read. It opens as three of the great wordsmiths of American History: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Oliver Wendell Holmes, and James Russell Lowell, are endeavoring to translate Dante’s The Divine Comedy into English for the first time, a task opposed by the influential leaders of Harvard College, who fear for the impact such “foreign” ideas will have on their students. In the middle of this power struggle, a hideous crime is discovered, one that seems to be tied to Dante’s infamous story of a man traveling through hell…

I wasn’t sure what to make of this book when I picked it up; I’ll admit with some shame that I’m not very familiar with the works of the protagonists of this book, and honestly I didn’t really feel any pull to change that after reading it. I was afraid upon reading the back that it was going to be some sort of literary version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Not so-the three amigos are investigators only reluctantly, and mainly react to the events going on.

However, the world around them, and the events that draw them in to the mystery, are contrariwise well described, making the time and place of the deaths itself a character. The explanation of the Comedy and its translation is also beautiful, and did make me want to read it, ironically. The idea behind the story is not new: a killer is inspired by a famous book/painting/children’s fable/how-to manual, and an expert or team of them is set against him. It’s a pretty reliable formula, but it doesn’t work too well here, since there’s a real lack of urgency to solve the crime, and a shallowness in the characterization of most of the central players. The most interesting one is Nicholas Rey, a biracial policeman who is swept up in the case, and I got the sense he’s Pearl’s favorite character as well.

Would I recommend this book? Perhaps to someone with more knowledge of the literary giants than myself, since that would probably enhance the enjoyment of this story. People interested in historical fiction might also be a good fit, since it does paint a vivid picture of post-Civil War Boston. Anyone looking for a good murder mystery should probably continue on their journey.