Tuesday, July 5, 2011

"The Blade Itself" by Joe Abercrombie

Pretension is a terrible pitfall in all writing.  It's the easiest way to alienate a reader.  Oddly enough, however, fantasy (and epic/sword and sorcery fantasy, in particular) is a genre that is - in a way - based on pretensions.  First of all, very few people would argue that epic fantasy all harkens back to one main bible, as it were, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.  It's big, it's long, it's... dry as dirt (a terribly dangerous precedent to set, but there it is).  Tolkien created his own aesthetics and languages to frame his world in order to create a deep layer of realism.  For him, it worked.  Sadly, this is not always the case.

Under a less deft hand, this frame of histories and mythologies can effectively act as one huge deadfall.  So many authors try to create their own worlds that are both fresh and exciting, but usually only manage to be either heavily derivative or... well, just complicated and uninteresting (usually derivative more often than not; please see: Terry Brooks, Terry Goodkind, etc).  Anyway, my point is that it seems like there is an acceptable way to write epic fantasy and an unacceptable way (or at least, a frowned upon way).  The acceptable way is to essentially mimic Tolkien's dry middle-ages tone (it is sword and sorcery, after all), and mix in a bunch of elves and dwarves on some kind of quest and call it a day.  It may be the acceptable way to do it, but that's not necessarily the best way to do it.

Enter Joe Abercrombie.  First of all, yay to Mr. Abercrombie for going by JOE and rather than Joseph A.T.B.C.G.R.R. Abercrombie IV.  If there was ever a microcosm to display to strange formal pretensions of epic fantasy, surely this silly name game must be it.  So yes, Mr. Just-Call-Me-Joe Abercrombie has come to free us from our bonds of arcane language and endlessly convoluted maps in order to drag us into the dirty and violent world of his First Law Trilogy, a world of reclusive wizards, shattered inquisitors, and introspective barbarians.

I've read my fair share of epic fantasy, though I can't claim to have read it all.  With special props going out to David Farland's first few Runelords books for entertaining me, most have left me rather blasé on the whole genre - blasphemously this does include The Lord of the Rings.  And so when I started hearing good things about Abercrombie, I have to admit that I ignored them.  More noteworthy epic fantasy.  Swell.

But it was not quite so easy to ignore this guy.  I did still read plenty of good things here and there online, never allowing me to forget Abercrombie and what he was doing.  Working in a bookstore, I also seemed to see his books everywhere.

After too long, I finally succumbed and read The Blade Itself, the first book in his trilogy, expecting the same post-epic fantasy-disappointment malaise I'd experienced after reading Game of Thrones, but in this regard, I was surprised.  With George R.R. Martin, I'd heard endlessly lauding comments about his character brilliance and plotting mastery, but by the end of his first tome, I was tired, and somehow I didn't even care to continue (especially considering the series had no end in sight, and still doesn't).  Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy is different.  Indeed it is a trilogy, and it's actually finished.  Each book clocks in around 550-600 pages (modest but respectable for epic fantasy).

But what sets Abercrombie apart from the rest, however, are his characters.  Yes, this is exactly what people say about George R.R. Martin.  Unlike Martin, however, Abercrombie understands that just as an author owes something to loyal readers, an author also owes something to their characters.  Martin's seeming indifference to the life or death of his own characters eventually removes any semblance of respect or weight to these character's lives.  It's not long before he begins to dispatched them faster than we can even keep them straight.

Abercrombie makes horrifically memorable characters who are both sympathetic and monstrous at the same time.  Inquisitor Glokta is a beast of a character, reveling in the pain and suffering of others, but it's not long before he becomes a terribly sympathetic man, essentially a broken man.  Not one to rest on pity, Abercrombie isn't afraid to make you hate the character again before eventually bringing you back to his side.  Add to Glokta the reclusive wizard Bayaz (who manages to be funny and mysterious more often than wise) and the brutish sentimentalist of a barbarian Logen Ninefingers.

It's been a while since I read this book, and with those lost months, many of the salient details of the plot have escaped me.  Essentially, this first book sets up the alliances and rivalries that will be played out in the remaining two volumes, Before They Are Hanged and The Last Argument of Kings.  In retrospect, I don't even really care about the plot anymore, the characters really became all that mattered to me.  I actually remember approaching the end of this book and finding myself smiling like a crazy man I was enjoying it so much.  Logen and Bayaz, Jezal and Glokta, as I got to understand them better, I would have gladly read any book with them.  Thankfully, Abercrombie's plots are as sharp as his characters.

If you're looking for sword and sorcery that won't take years to complete (and most likely leave you angry that the story has outlived the creator), take a swing at Abercrombie's The First Law Trilogy.  Sharp dialogue, smart writing, and hellaciously engaging characters make this one not to miss.

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie
Published by PYR

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Despicable Genre Obsessions & Condemnations

Infinite apologies for my long and unexplained hiatus, constant reader, I know you have been on the edge of your mass-market reading seat, holding your breath in dear anticipation of my next blog posting.

Like any good delinquent, I've plenty of excuses.

I've learned over the years that I am a person who goes through life leaping from one obsession to the next.  Obsession may not be the best word, the truth being that it's somewhere between obsession and fascination.  For a while it was jazz, then anime, then urban fantasy, then physics.  The transitions between one and the next are quite inexplicable.  Anyway, while these obsessions usually last for a long enough period of time for me to adequately sink my teeth into some new material, I've recently spent my days spinning from one to another.  It's left me not only with a pile of new books tall enough to make my Love's blood pressure spike dangerously, but it's left me with very few cohesive thoughts to put down in black and white.  So I'll make good use of this place-holding post to catch you up, and lay down a few defenses for some terribly scorned sub-genres.

I've been a proud bookseller for years, and I'll shamefully admit that the cozy mystery is probably the most ridiculed sub-genre that possibly comes to mind.  Murders in bakeries, apple orchards, teddy bear contests (?!?), libraries, tattoo parlors, tea shops, and ice cream parlors are standard fare for cozy mysteries.  If you are totally in the dark over this whole sub-genre, let me give you a short definition:

cozy (n.): a sub-genre of mystery's sleuth genre, generally consisting of an amateur sleuth in a small town investigating a murder using their own life experiences as the only tool to catch the local criminal mastermind.  Cozy mysteries are generally written for women, by women, and downplay both sex and violence in an attempt to make the mystery as wholesome and nice as possible.

Not really an Encyclopedia Britannica definition, but it's not bad.  The thing to know about cozies is that they are nice.  Damn nice.  Despite the fact that they include murder(s), the violence really is downplayed to the point of non-existence, while sex and profanity are all pretty much limited to "darn" and "he has deep and mysterious eyes, reminiscent of my darn ex-husband."

Let me stop myself from deriding this genre before I've even had the chance to defend it, because shaming cozy mysteries is not at all my intention here.  The sad truth is that when something is as nice and innocent as a cozy mystery, it's all to easy to poke fun at it.  But like I said, that's not my intention.  As a matter of fact, I read my first cozy - the title pictured above, Lorna Barrett's Bookplate Special - because I've had a yearning to discover quite how cozy authors meld the niceness with the murder, two things that must be included in a book to make it a cozy.

After reading Ms. Barrett's third entry in her Booktown series, I was quite happy (and I'm pretty certain that's exactly the desired effect of reading a cozy).  The mystery was nice and neat, wrapped up in a bow after our sassy bookstore owner sussed it out of her local do-no-gooders.  The secondary characters were sufficiently charming and the story moved at a brisk enough pace for me to not even mind when nitpicky details got on my nerves.  I must say, there really is something to this whole niceness thing.  I've read my share of terribly dark fantasy and horror stories to take a story like this as a breath of fresh air.  Not unlike spending a quality 43 minutes with Jessica Fletcher on Murder, She Wrote (perhaps the quintessential cozy mystery detective, albeit not the first, that honor goes to Dame Agatha Christie's unmatched Miss Marple) or the length of a television movie with my man Columbo, cozy mysteries are great books for tough times, reminding we jaded city-dwellers that there still are nice people in nice small towns (even if they do come with a never-ending supply of dead bodies).  To broadly paraphrase Donatella Moss in The West Wing, we so easily make fun of these cozy mysteries without ever taking notice of the pride and care each author takes in working their loves and hobbies into these stories (whether it be the teddy bear collecting of John Lamb's The Mournful Teddy, the cooking and catering of Laura Hyzy's State of the Onion, or the coffee preparation of Cleo Coyle's On What Grounds).  I don't think I could read them non-stop without having my teeth rot and fall out, but a little bit of sweetness sure is a good thing.

I believe that soon enough in my busy reading schedule, I'll find some time to pencil in a nice cozy about a librarian or scrapbooking enthusiast bent on solving the murder of her silver spoon collecting cousin (with recipes included!!!).  I do honestly have more than a handful in my to-be-read pile.  I have little doubt that I'll be enjoying one again, soon enough.

Ahhh, the RPG tie in.  Like I already said, the cozy mystery is easily the most derided genre by booksellers, but if there ever was a sub-genre to fight for the dubious honor, it would be the RPG novel.  The titles, the neverending lore, the constant new releases, the overzealous cover art.  It's all too easy to try and make a punchline out of this surprisingly successful niche genre.  But before puling out your best quips and puns about space witches and dark elves, wait just one moment, please.

The main argument against RGP novels is that they're not original fiction.  For the uninitiated, RPG and tie-in novels are mass-market fiction that stems from video games, card games, table top role playing games, popular television shows, comic books, and the like.  RPG novels and tie-ins are generally maligned because literary snobs take them to be the lowest of the low - intentionally derivative material that is no better than professionally sanctioned fan fiction.  In this case, I am more than happy to stand between the RPG novel and the literary snob.  Please, rain your criticisms down on me, because these novels are not only a blast to read, but are written with plenty of pride and love and respect not only for the genre, but for all the works that came before.

Forgotten Realms, Dungeons and Dragons, and Dragonlance are some of the most popular series to come to mind, but in recent years Warhammer and Warhammer 40,000 have been picking up serious steam, now taking up more space in your local bookstore than even James Patterson.  A while back I was lucky enough to meet R.A. Salvatore before a reading at my place of employment, and thanks to his unabashed dedication to and enthusiasm for what he writes, my interest was piqued enough to read a few of his Forgotten Realms Drizzt novels.

I ended up reading only two, but I quite enjoyed the time I spent in his world.  Honestly, I'm not certain how much of what was in the book was conceived by Salvatore and how much of it was already Forgotten Realms canon, but I couldn't care less.  The stories were both well-conceived and well-written.  After reading a bit more about Forgotten Realms and Salvatore, I became fascinated by how the game's canon began to change to further align with Salvatore's world, and eventually how the two became enmeshed enough to sufficiently influence the other.  More authors are brought in to expand on the world, and rather than becoming limited, it explodes.  Such is the way of the RPG novel.

To speak like I'm in any way knowledgeable about the RPG novel would be a lie, because if you include the title I am currently reading - Dan Abnett's Horus Rising - it would still only count three books.  Regardless, I am terribly disappointed to see any sub-genre become so terribly tossed aside by the general reading populace merely because it's viewed as lowbrow or pulp.  Lest we forget, 99 years ago a little novel called A Princess of Mars introduced us to John Carter, one of the most loved genre heros in history, and while Edgar Rice Burroughs will always be remembered as a prolific writer of pulp paperbacks, he is in fact one of the Kings of Pulp.

So before you snub your nose at sweet little mysteries involving grandmothers or sci-fi epics about genetically engineered space marines, don't forget that the likes of Lorna Barrett or Dan Abnett could very well be the future Queens and Kings of Pulp.

Give them a read.  You very well might enjoy them.

Until next time, keep reading, and keep an open mind.

Friday, February 18, 2011

"The World House" by Guy Adams

Guy Adams's The World House is a tough book to review for a few reasons, just one being that The World House is very much the beginning of a long series.  Honestly, I expected it to be much more of a stand-alone work then it turned out to be.  As it stands, The World House is similar to a less abrupt first volume of Tad Williams's magnum opus Otherland.

"In some rooms, forests grow.  In others, animals and objects come to life.  Elsewhere, secrets and treasures await the brave and foolhardy.

"And at the very top of the hosue, a prisoner sits behind a locked door, waiting for a key to turn.  The day that happens, the world will end..."

So reads the back of the book.  Another reason why I have a hard time writing about The World House is that as I read it, despite what I was enjoying, I had very mixed feelings.  Guy Adams has got a fantastic imagination that is at play throughout these 400 some odd pages, but what bothered me was that I found myself wanting more.

As the book opens, Adams leads us through a few Stephen King-cum-"Lost" chapters, jumping forward and backwards in time to introduce the main cast of characters.  For a 400 page book, The World House opens with a scope that would lead you to believe that it is actually an epically massive tome (main characters are first introduced as much as 130 pages into it).  So as I read onward, The World House very much began to resemble long form works like It or The Stand.

The band of characters is fairly large and interesting, but regretfully underutilized.  There are characters that Adams clearly took his time to introduce who are dispatched without second thought.  For others, they slip out of the story right under the reader's nose.  So while the brevity Adams displays is quite refreshing for a book that wishes to cover a huge amount of territory, it also ended up working against him, because by the end of the novel, an entirely new plot has been put into place for the follow-up - Restoration, due out here in the states on July 26th - that leaves little chance for these characters' stories to be concluded satisfyingly.

In that regard, yes, I wanted more.  More rooms, more mystery, more strangeness, more hardship, and more resolution.  As it stands now, the novel ended with a very nice twist that erased any annoyances I'd accumulated and left me pretty pumped for the sequel.  Although, I can't help but wonder how good this novel would have been if Adams had been unchained and had free reign to pound out a Tad Williams/Stephen King epic with enough plots and subplots to choke a donkey.  The material is all here within these 400-some pages, and with his imagination I believe it would have been formidable.  But, like I said, the sequel comes out on 26 July, so I'm quite excited for the possibilities.

I read another reader's review here on the intarweb machine and was surprised to find that they found the trip through the house itself rather frustrating because it seemed to lead nowhere.  As I read that review, I found myself strongly disagreeing.  The trip through the house was perhaps what I enjoyed the best.  Like I said before, Adams's imagination is wonderful, and as the narrative wore on, I enjoyed the character dynamics as the small groups moved from room to room, battling beasties and overcoming the house's maddening quirks.  More of that would not have been frustrating, it would have been a blessing.

As it stands, very much about my opinion of The World House will rest on the upcoming sequel.  Will Mr. Adams's vision come to full fruition as I so hoped upon reading The World House's final chapter?  Will he live up to the wonderful ideas presented in his Angry Robot debut?  Will the next piece of this potentially grand puzzle fit as well as I believe it could?

I do hope so.

The World House by Guy Adams
published by Angry Robot

Thursday, February 10, 2011

"Changeless" by Gail Carriger

I really dislike writing negative reviews.  To channel Gail Carriger's Alexia Tarabotti [Maccon], I find the act horribly uncouth.  If you've come to this blog to read scathingly negative and vitriolic reviews, I believe you've mistaken The Penny Dreadful Review for Pitchfork Media.

That being said, Changeless was a terrible disappointment.

I read Gail Carriger's debut novel Soulless a few months ago and found it not only compulsively readable, but also a welcomed breath of fresh air.  Carriger's prose is wonderfully different from all other urban fantasy; think a dry, British, comedy-of-manners style.  Not only that, but her characters are quirky and likable, to boot.

Again, that being said, Changeless was a serious misstep.

What was so wonderfully unique and quirky in Soulless manages to be a bit silly and even grating in Changeless.  The loose and meandering plot that made Soulless seem so relaxed and carefree seems haphazard and slipshod in Changeless.  I don't want to harp on shortcomings, but there was very little about Changeless that I enjoyed.

Changeless picks up pretty much where Soulless left off.  Alexia Tarabotti, now Alexia Maccon, Mujah to the queen, is embroiled in the heart of supernatural matters in steampunk London, swinging her favorite parasol at any evil head that comes near her.  She's investigating a strange phenomenom that is making all supernatural folk in a given area be struck by the terrible plight of mortality, ie they lose all supernatural power and become mortal.  Things meander around London for a while, introducing a few groan-worthy character situations (for example, Ivy Hisselpenny's crush on Alexia's husband's thespian claviger), and incredibly forced romantic interractions (please see: sexual tension between Alexia and an annoying werewolf gamma; sexual tension between Alexia and a female French inventor [?]. After the sexual tension was shoehorned into nearly every scene with Madame Le Foux, I began to wonder if Alexia is sexually attracted to simply everyone she meets).

After a terribly long time, Alexia finally makes her way to Scotland in pursuit of her wayward husband.  Shenanigans ensue.  Cue zaniness.  And some Benny Hill music.

When Alexia "discovers" what has been causing this previously inexplicable outbreak of mortality, it absolutely comes out of left field about 80% of the way through the book.  Okay, I'll deal.  But the resolution to this faux-locked house mystery is only managed by one character literally explaining everything to our heroine at great length.  Some Mujah detective lady Alexia turns out to be!

To frustrate further, the cliffhanger to this novel hinges on a misunderstanding to which the answer is dreadfully evident to any and everyone reading it.  You'll probably say "Seriously?" aloud just like I did.  The only person who doesn't get it is Alexia's husband, the apparently blockheaded Lord Maccon.

Oh dear, I don't want to go further, I've gone on far too long, already.  With Changeless, Miss Gail Carigger has managed to undo much of her well-earned good graces with me here at The Penny Dreadful Review, though I have not entirely lost hope.  There are still many wonderful things in Changeless, mainly the characters and character interractions, but I very much hope she resolves her plotting issues as well as her character motivations.  The reasons characters make huge life altering decisions should be based on stronger grounds than confused propriety or juvenile misunderstandings.

I do hope that Blameless, The Parasol Protectorate: Book the Third is stronger than this effort, which earns the moniker 'sophomore slump' all too well.

It will, however, be a very long time until I read Book the Third to find out.

Changeless, The Parasol Protectorate: Book the Third
by Gail Carigger
published by Orbit

Monday, February 7, 2011

"Gardens of the Moon" by Steven Erikson

by Kathleen S., guest writer and Penny Dreadful Review loyalist.
I am not a die-hard fan of this series, or the fantasy genre, honestly. In fact, this is the first fantasy I’ve ever read. When my boyfriend convinced me to check it out, I must confess I had a “can I handle pulling this out of my Betsey Johnson bag and reading it on the El?” moment. The answer, it turns out, is a definite yes.

So to Erikson’s extreme credit, he got me - not your typical sword and sorcerer gal - engrossed in the vivid world of the Malazan Empire. His background in anthropology emerges in the lavish details that have gone into constructing the histories, cultures and cities that populate the world. It gives the story a feeling of authenticity and realism that I honestly wasn’t expecting in a fantasy. The imaginative descriptions, as well as several choice characters (there is a deranged, wooden, wizard puppet running amok), were what piqued my interested enough to keep navigating the incredibly complex political, social, and occasionally divine machinations that weave the seemingly disparate characters into a single narrative.

The complexity and the scope of the book- the first in a ten part series, all of which are over 600 pages- was initially the most daunting aspect. Erikson drops you right in it, too – equipped only with the world’s least helpful frontispiece map and a glossary where a single character might be listed by four different titles (Son of Darkness, Moon’s Lord, Anomander Rake, Knight of the High House Dark) and listed in two separate sub-categories (Ascendants, World of Sorcery). Oh yeah, and his sword has a name, place in the index and a whole frickin’ world inside it as well.  Remarkably, though, I finished the book feeling like I knew what was going on – and even anticipating events in the next book based on what I’d learned about the characters. In retrospect, the most daunting part was getting through the first half of the book, where the depictions of the war-ravaged lands and wearied soldiers became so omnipresent and heavy that I was soon anesthetized and started wondering what Captain Paran could possibly be horrified by – hadn’t he walked through a sea of severed limbs just yesterday? Wasn’t he used to crows and their proclivity for human eyeballs yet? After the initial establishment that these people were really, really battle-scattered, the narrative was more satisfying- particularly in the beautifully depicted free city of Darujhistan, where we meet a young thief and his cohorts, including a fat old trickster named Krupp who carries off speaking only in 3rd person with a surprising amount of panache.

I would say this book was engaging and remarkably well thought-out. It also did a good job of not making me cringe or regret my decision to read a fantasy, so it’s suitable for newbies (dare I even say skeptics?) to the genre. I’ll probably end up reading the whole series over time, but it was entertaining enough to be a satisfying stand-alone.  And just in case I didn’t convince you yet, here’s a quick run down of some of the guest stars:  a rag-tag demolition crew, stoic mummies, lady wizards, a gigolo, hellhounds, a magical coin, an assassin’s guild, several giants, mutant crows, a floating fortress, and a deck of seriously ominous tarot cards that may or may not change the entire fate of the world each time they are dealt.

Gardens of the Moon, Volume One of the Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson
published by Tor

Sunday, February 6, 2011

"Unnatural History" by Jonathan Green

Recently there have been a host of relatively niche publishers and imprints that have done a nice job of making an impact on the science fiction / fantasy market.  A few of them are listed among the links here on the blog, publishers like Angry Robot, Abaddon Books, Orbit, Pyr, and a handful of others.  The unique personality that each of these publishers imparts on their own titles is incredibly refreshing in a genre that can sometimes become a little... sterile.

With that in mind, let me tell you a little about one of these publishers: Abaddon books.  I had a soft spot in my heart for them before I'd ever read anything they'd published, hoping beyond hope that they wouldn't let me down. Now that I've finished Unnatural History, the first in their Pax Britannia series, I'm incredibly happy. To give you some background, let me copy a blurb from Abaddon's own website to give you an idea of what this little gem of a publisher is all about:
"This isn't Harry Potter. Most of our books are violent, and they're all pretty dark. The good guys don't always win, and the bad guys don't always get their just desserts. We're not going to weigh you down with eight hundred pages of description and cosmology either; our stories are slick, pacy and stylish. We want to take you back to the good old days of pulp fiction, when vampire stories weren't all about the endless torment of your lost humanity and fantasy stories didn't run for fifteen volumes.  Buckle up. It's going to get rough."
Just like The Penny Dreadful Review, these guys love good old fashioned pulpy genre fiction, and Unnatural History delivers in spades. It's Indiana Jones meets Sherlock Holmes in a modern day steampunk London. The story is tight, short, and a freakin' blast. I'm not gonna get bogged down with narrative dynamics here, this is simply the definition of fun reading.

Unnatural History takes place in an alternate history steampunk modern day.  Dirigibles, automotons, difference engines, and locomotives help populate this modern British Empire, known as Magna Britannia.  Into this world, welcome Ulysses Quicksilver, dandy and renowned adventurer.  The basic story involves a break-in at the national history museum that quickly spirals into an uncontrollable conspiracy involving a power grab and the murder of Queen Victoria (whose reign is now approaching 160 years).

Every great cliché you can think of is here, including the mustached/scar faced villain, the fantastic names (almost approaching James Bond Moonraker cheesiness, and I mean that in a great way), the ever loyal Alfred Pennyworth-esque chauffeur/partner in crime, the color by numbers plot twists, etc etc. I loved it all.

Here's the best part, though: Unnatural History is completely self-aware. Its author, Jonathan Green, intentionally dips as deeply as possible into the bottomless well of pulpy deliciousness. There are a few passages here that were perfect, good enough to make me laugh out loud in my room by myself.

For example, in the midst of the novel's climax, our mystery villain feels the need to lay out his entire plan (for numerous paragraphs) to our wily hero, Ulysses Quicksilver. When the bad guy has cackled his last cackle and is finished, Quicksilver raises a proverbial finger and fires this salvo:

" 'By jingo! Finally I see what all this has been about,' Ulysses declared.

'Of course, I have just told you what it is all about you idiot!' (mystery villain) exclaimed. " (294)

Yes, author Jonathan Green is well aware that he's writing pure pulp, and finally someone is proud of it. All of Abaddon books is aware of it and proud of it. This is a marvelous genre worthy of authors who enjoy the world, the language, and the tools it takes to put together a good old thrilling yarn. Think it's easy? Watch Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull for a nice cinder block to the head reminder that it's really not.

To be fair, it took me a little while to get into the swing of the novel's fun. At first, I thought it was just middle of the road fluff. After a few chapters, however, I felt myself get pulled in. It's just fun, and you can tell the author is having a great time writing it, as well.

Even as candy goes, it's not perfect. The action scenes can sometimes be a little unwieldy, but it's all good. Enjoy the trip. It's steampunk with scallywags, dinosaurs, dirigibles, neanderthals, automatons, femme fatales, spidey-sense, and self-aware jokes. So really, what are you waiting for?  Perhaps the best news of the day is that Ulysses Quicksilver himself is the central reoccurring character in Abaddon's Pax Britannia series.

Let's hope he's around for a while.

Unnatural History, a Novel of Pax Britannia
by Jonathan Green
published by Abaddon Books

Saturday, February 5, 2011

"Slights" by Kaaron Warren

On the cover of Kaaron Warren's debut novel Slights, after he explains how powerful he found the the novel to be, author Russell Kirkpatrick is quoted as saying simply, "I felt ill much of the time."  A quick glance at the back reveals a few other choice words used in describing this book include "sickening," "gruesome," and "disturbing."  Not to mention "outstanding."  When I cracked open Slights, however, I was unprepared for what waited.

Slights had me expecting Stephen King or Brian Keane levels of gore.  Long passages of visceral disembowelments or beheadings that would make it quite easy to pigeonhole this novel as "disturbing" and leave it at that.  But I was wrong.

What makes Slights so good is everything that goes unsaid.  Sure, there is violence here - more than a fair share of it - but there are enough truly disturbing concepts packed into the subtext of one chapter of this book to make you quickly forget any graphically depicted violence that you've already read.  Murder?  Okay, what about the murder of a very young child?  Pedophilia?  Okay, how about pedophilia involving an unobjecting and chillingly curious child?  Or Warren's coup de grace: the faint tug of sympathy for the main character that she will somehow manage to evoke from you at one point in the novel or another.

I'll try not to give much of this plot away, because the less you know, the better.  After having finished it, I was quite disappointed that so much was given away on the back cover.  If possible, titles like this should be digested with little or no prep.  In this case, the old adage 'the less you know, the better' is perfectly applicable.

This novel is basically a first person foray into the mind of a sociopathic madwoman: young misanthrope Stevie.  That's all you need to know, and even that may be too much.  At first, it's quite easy to believe that Stevie is simply a bit... strange.  She has a unique - if not eerily bizarre - sense of humor, dark enough at times to make you squirm as you read.  But Kaaron Warren's genius comes in the gradual revelation of Stevie.  It's all too easy to dismiss the darker half of Stevie's personality in the first few chapters, coughing its quirks up to mere weirdness or unnatural isolation, that is until Warren cuts Stevie's leash.  That's when the novel gets really interesting.

Like I said, I don't want to give too much away.  It is all too easy to say a few things about this story and end up spoiling a great deal of it.  This is a novel of twisted family secrets, both literally and figuratively buried in the backyard, simply waiting to be uncovered.  Warren's painfully and perfectly realized narrator Stevie is a sharply distinctive voice that will resonate in your mind long after you've turned the last page, much to your continued chagrin.  The same disturbing nonchalance in Stevie's voice and narration is exactly what keeps you coming back for more, even as Warren drags the story into darker and darker territories.  If this offers any idea of Kaaron Warren's potential, I very much look forward to her work in the future.

Not to be missed.

Slights by Kaaron Warren
published by Angry Robot