Summer Knight by Jim Butcher

The Dresden Files are pretty well known by now, since they inspired a short-lived  TV series and a RPG game. Butcher has used the success of the series to create two other book series. I’ve read them all and found that they are at the worst decent time-wasters. Like any author his books can be hit-or-miss just based on the individual’s interests as well; Fool Moon was not his strongest entry, but I just like werewolves and so I was swept along where someone else might not have persevered. A later entry in the series called Ghost Story was much better written and showed off Butchers’ skill, but spirits on the other hand are not that fascinating in my opinion. That being said, I’ve never really been interested in in Faeries or stories about them, but the way he writes them and makes them “modern” and yet inhumanly fascinating was able to get past my initial reluctance.

     Summer Knight starts off with Harry Dresden in a bad place following the events of the previous book, and things quickly go downhill. He is contacted by one of the Faerie Courts (known as the Seelie and Unseelie) in order to put something right. This means that a hapless young wizard is surrounded by mysterious, powerful beings who in many cases could squash him like a bug, as well as years of intrigue and fighting for status (magic + politics = fireballs instead of filibusters! Highest-rated TV channel ever!). This book is where the universe Butcher was planning to create really took wing, and I suspect where the groundwork for his RPG was laid as well. It features a host of new characters, an in-depth look at the power players and factions within the magical community, and some further suggestion that events in the earlier books might have alternate meanings.

It’s for these reasons, as well as the increased confidence Butcher shows in the writing that Summer Knight is one of my favorite in the series, (the rest of which are constantly shifting in rank as they are reread). As a person who likes to start a series in the beginning, it’s startling to consider that this book is probably the best place to enter the Dresden Files series of books if you want a serving of excellent writing without the early-days problems that dog most series.

In an earlier review I looked at Storm Front, the first of the series, and the two books side by side could be used to teach a class on writing improvement. On the one hand, starting at the beginning of the Dresden Files might be for the best-on the other, why not jump in where the fun really begins? I can’t answer which way is best. I’ve also begun listening to this book on CD, and it says something that the story sound just as good when spoken aloud as when read silently.

The Fifth Sorceress by Robert Newcomb

I’ve read a lot of books, probably hundreds, spanning a wide variety of subjects and most genres. I love reading, and usually carry a book with me wherever I go, which obviously makes doing anything a lot more difficult. I also like recommending books to people and just in general discussing them with anyone. That’s why I’m writing this particular review: as a warning.

The Fifth Sorceress is a terrible book. Probably one of the worst I’ve ever read. The ideas, characters, and most everything else are either cliches or originally awful. I found nothing to like or recommend about this in any way, and regret the time and money wasted on buying and reading any part of it.

The plot is thusly: A group of three evil sorceresses (and ONLY women are evil magic-users in this world) tried to take over the kingdom and were only defeated after a long war. Instead of simply killing them, they were abandoned on a rowboat in the middle of the ocean. Apparently five are needed to take over the world, and one got away.

Thousands of years later, a young prince named Tristram (who is called the “Chosen One” at birth.  No, I’m not kidding.) is the target of the plot by another sorceress to take their revenge by kidnapping his twin sister and turn her to evil. After Tristan is forced to kill his father by an unmemorable bad guy, he sets out with his wizard friend Wigg(!?) to get his sister back.

There’s a lot of weirdness and bad ideas in these books. For example, magic is divided into two parts: the good Vigors and the evil Vagaries. Only men use the first, of course. Discovering the evil magic turns the sorceresses into sadistic constantly-horny pansexual villains. An oft-quoted line from the book describes it thusly:

“And then, surprisingly, the acute unfulfilled desires had come. One day, while struggling to understand one of the more arcane passages of the Vagaries, she and the others had all felt the unexpected stirrings of their loins. The hugely sexual, needful longings had been intensified by an insanely irresistible desire to inflict those same sexual needs upon others.

Of both genders.”

Oh, the horrors. Normally I’d hesitate to use the word “misogyny’ without good cause, but here there’s a great deal of evidence to support the label. The author seems to have some real issues about women, and isn’t shy about sharing them. I’d write more about it, but the utter lack of of good writing in general has basically acted on my interest or concern for this review the same way a drunk’s urination will destroy a child’s sandcastle, and with the same level of style and taste. Even that tortured and disgusting metaphor is better than The Fifth Sorceress.

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

H. P. Lovecraft had a particular style-lots of weirdly descriptive words, edging right up to the description of horrors without ever giving us a clear picture. He also had several themes that he kept coming back to: vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. He had real issues with miscegenation pretty much everyone who wasn’t a white man, including Jews, black people, and people of low class. This fear and influence creeps into almost everything he wrote, and can be a nasty shock to people reading them for the first time.

Author Victor LaValle (who has a pretty Lovecraft-y name himself) grew up reading Howard Phillip Lovecraft, and he didn’t absorb the issues that obsessed the author at first. However, as a young black man it was difficult to overlook. This inspired him to write a story of his own: The Ballad of Black Tom. It deals with vast, uncaring beings of inhuman aspect and hidden abominations that lurk in the dark places of our world, but who may be summoned by unspeakable acts, and racism. Set in New York in 1942, it follows the story of Tommy Tester, a young man who makes his money by making secret deliveries all over the city, as well as by pretending to be a “bluesman” by carrying a guitar  and pretending to play in parts of the City where the sight of a black man is a rarity. On the hunt for a good spot, he is approached by a strange old man, and the real adventure begins.

“Ballad” is not a long book-92 pages, but LaValle packs a lot into it-Tommy is a fun character, and the story does manage to create a feeling of cosmic horror around each corner of the City. It’s not a story about that per se and LaValle doesn’t write in the same florid style as Lovecraft, but the flavor is the same, while also delivering a picture of the prejudice and police brutality of the time, issues that we have happily overcome in our own century.

Check it out if you like Lovecraft, historical writing and want to meet an intriguing  writing talent.

 

 

Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Life’s full of regrets, mistakes, lost opportunities and bad memories. Sometimes you can see them in someone’s eyes or the way they act, but sometimes they’re hidden under nonchalance and a bright smile. But imagine if you couldn’t hide it-if everyone could see your past sins in a physical form?

That’s part of the premise of Lauren Beukes’ excellent novel Zoo City. People who have committed a violent act, almost always a murder, are connected with an apparent representation of that crime in the form of an animal. This can take the form of anything: a Butterfly, a Mongoose, a Turtle, a Cougar. The animals are a species that belongs to the person’s geographic home, and they come with burdens and advantages. People with animals can call on the gifts of their animal in a small way. They get a specific gift as well, such as being able to track down missing objects once they’ve met you (and vice versa) or sucking in your happy memories.

The downsides include the fact that if you get too far from your animal, there’s intense discomfort and anxiety. If your animal dies, you are devoured by a formless shadow called the Undertow. And of course there’s the obvious prejudice and dislike; the “animalled” or “zoos” are killed automatically in China, and in the US are second-class citizens subject to intense genetic scans and check-ins with the government.

In South Africa, where the story takes place, the zoos have a modicum of respect. There’s a housing development called Zoo City where many of them live, and while it’s not a palace it’s a community. That’s where Zinzi December makes her home. A former journalist and wild child/drug addict, Zinzi makes a living tracking down lost objects and sending out scam emails to pay off her debts. She would also make Kristen Bell die of envy, because Zinzi’s animal is a Sloth that is usually found draped around her shoulders. It’s the result of her brother’s death, and part of the reason for her downward slide.

Today however, things are different: she’s been hired to find a missing teen pop star, her last client ended up dead, and she’s low on options. She has a few contacts, the burden of her obvious bad past in cuddly animal form, and plenty of determination and strength to unravel the real crime, using both her smile and her Sloth to make things right.

As is usual with these stories she soon learns that she’s in very deep water. Everyone with an animal (and everyone without) has a secret they’re not telling us, and they fact that they’re seen with suspicion by “normal” people means an extra level of distrust toward each other as well. At the same time, the presence of the animals leads to some funny moments that are sketched in as deftly as the thrills and horror that also abound

I’ve read a good amount of urban fantasy, starting with Jim Butcher’s Dresden FilesZoo City is easily one of the best examples of the genre I’ve yet encountered, and I highly recommend it to anyone. This book sports accolades from Bill Willingham and William Gibson, as well as an Arthur C. Clark Award. All of these are impressive and well deserved. Beukes’ style is quick and sharp, mixing local language and information about zoos with a cynical, bright-eyed examination of the grim world in which she lives, and the difficulty of walking about with your sins out for everyone to see. Tonight I will likely dream of what my own animal would be in her world.

As with all of my other reviews, this one is also featured on Cannonball Read, a race to review a certain number of books in a year, all in a good cause. There’s a lot of other good stuff over there: please feel free to take a look.

Prepare To Die by Paul Tobin

There are those who decry the recent upsurge in comic books as the basis for TV shows and movies, seeing them as “kiddie stuff”, too simplistic for a good foundation or simply being uninterested in comics in general. I’m a geek from way back, and I love debating them, but I am not going to do that here-at least not when it comes to two of these arguments. Anyone who gives their kid a (good)comic is only doing the child a favor in my opinion, and everyone is entitled to their opinion.

No, what I take issue with is the suggestion that comics aren’t “deep” enough to anchor a good story. Are some of the concepts pretty cut-and-dried? Yes. Are some of the most well-known characters not the most complex, at first glance? I’d agree to that in a heartbeat. Super-powers are not automatically a handicap or detriment to writing an interesting story. Indeed, it can provide even more fertile soil for amazing stories, or more tools for crafting an intriguing world.

A case in point is Prepare To Die by Paul Tobin, a book I picked up on a whim and found hard to put down. I’ll admit the comic-book-y cover and plot description drew me to it at first glance, but it was the story that drew me in and kept me reading.

The main character is Steve Clarke, the hero known as Reaver. He’s superstrong, supertough, and each punch can literally take off a man’s life. He is hailed as a hero, yet feared for his gifts, which leaves him in an odd place of being met with awe rather than love by most normal humans. As the story begins he’s headed to the hometown he hasn’t seen in years following a threat from his arch-enemy Octagon: he has two weeks to put his effects in order before he dies. It’s a simple idea, on the face of it, and of course ties into the supervillian cliche in the title.

But there’s a lot more to it, of course. During the story we learn Steve’s origin story, how being a hero has changed his life, and what he misses through being more than human. It’s ground that of course has been covered in other places with other characters, but Tobin keeps it fresh by giving Steve a very down-to-earth voice and clearly painting the world and the superfolks in it. He creates several distinct people with personalities and powers without making them seem like obvious exports of other heroes, which is no easy task.

The story itself is fairly straightforward, but no less fun. Some parts are depressing, some very funny, some surprisingly raunchy without being over the top. If I had to sum up the whole story in a single phrase I’d call it “light but strong.” I’d be interested in reading more stories from Mr. Tobin, especially  that Spirit Guide of his, since I’ve been looking for it for years, and it’s been recommended by several leading scientists..

What is CBR#5?

Someone reading my reviews might be puzzled as to why they’re titled “CBR 5”. I’m participating in the fifth year of Cannonball Read, in which a person will read and review as many books as they can in a given year. I opted for about 20 I think, since I’m quite fast and (sadly) have a lot of free time nowadays. It’s a great impetus to get my brain working and work under a deadline, even if it is self-imposed. I’d highly recommend anyone with an interest in writing to check it out.