I should confess that I am under the influence of rather too much turkey at this point. I hope all of you had lovely Thanksgivings, and ate just enough of the things you enjoy eating at this time of year. I hope you took the opportunity to do some reading, as well - I know I did. This week, my review features zombies, war, police detection and zombies, war and police detection all at once. Also, cyclopses. Ready?
Cherie Priest - Dreadnought
Ms. Priest has begun to make a name for herself in the steampunk genre. This is her second book in what she is calling her "Clockwork Century" series, a series of books set in an alternate history in which the US Civil War started just a little later, and so involves technology just a little better, and has thus lasted a lot longer. Also, there are zombies. The war provides the backdrop to this book - it has raged for at least a generation, such that boys and girls born after the beginning of the war are now old enough to participate in the war. Mercy Lynch, a nurse in a Confederate hospital, receives bad news about her Union husband, and then troubling news about the father who abandoned her family when Mercy was just an infant. This precipitates a long voyage across the continent by air ship, steam ship, and train. The only train she can get onto leaving St. Louis for the West Coast is pulled by a heavily armored Union locomotive named the Dreadnought. While on the train, she encounters some interesting characters, including a Union scientist who believes he has a solution to the war. It involves zombies. Right and justice prevail over warmongering and the undead hoards, but this prompts some thought for me.
Recently, Charles Stross has posted a screed attacking steampunk as a literary movement. His objection is grounded in two points - first, that the genre, or sub-genre or whatever it is within the speculative fiction realm, is too everpresent. That is perhaps justifiable - there does seem to be a trend towards tossing a zepplin and a steam powered robot at an otherwise perfectly good novel and calling it steampunk. His other point is that the genre (or sub-genre, or whatever) glorifies the Victorian era, with all of the darkness and excess of Victorian era imperialism. This, I think, seems to miss the point - and the zombies in Ms. Priest's books (which come under special condemnation - "gas induced zombies are not Science, now are they, Ms. Priest?" - I paraphrase) really seem to illustrate the point. Yes, the "steam" in steampunk points to the Victorian era, when mechanization, especially of factories, was rising quickly. Yes, that factorization (if that's a word) marked the era, and every era after it, forcing (western) societies to take a certain path and other (eastern?) societies into a particular role (subjugation, mostly) - but the "punk" in steampunk rejects the standardization that those factories imply. A single example: aesthetically, yes, steampunks tend towards brass and brown, but, most importantly, they tend towards do it yourselfishness - not one size fits many off the rack fashion, but one size fits one tailor made clothing. The characters in Dreadnought fight against the zombies, against the standardization of modernism, against the uniformity of war and empire and conquest. Steampunk is, at its best, a celebration of the individual - and isn't that the basis for most speculative fiction? Indeed, isn't that why we read it and love it, those of us who do? So, Cherie Priest, keep on with your gas induced zombies and heavily armored trains and zepplins in the weird west, please, and I will continue reading about them.
Connie Willis - Blackout and All Clear
Although published as two works, these really constitute a single, very long, novel. Willis writes a wide variety of things, but she tends to be known for her time travelling books, like these two. The underlying premise - at some point in the future, time travel is developed. After it becomes clear that the technology cannot be used to alter the past, it is abandoned by governments seeking to improve their situation and instead used by university history departments to get a real grasp on the past. Through several works, Ms. Willis has developed the principles of her version of time travel - what are the risks to the participants; where are the loop holes in the rules, and how far can they stretch; and, above all, how can these elements intersect to make for good stories? And they do make for good stories, because another thing Ms. Willis is known for is her skill as an excellent story teller.
Time and time again, Ms. Willis has returned not only to the theme of time travel, but to an exploration of World War Two in England - a fascinating topic. This two part novel is a tour de force, covering the war from a wide variety of angles, and bringing in stories about ordinary people doing extraordinarily heroic things. It is a story about heroes, and about love (Ms. Willis got her start in writing romance novels, and some of that shows here - but the really good sort of romance novels, not the kind you would ever sell to a used book store). The story is also about mystery novels, and about chaos, and about history. The plot is twisted, and the chronology is also twisted (which doesn't help), and Willis uses her characteristic dialogue to excellent effect. An element of many of Ms. Willis' stories is the way in which her characters talk over and under each other, accidentally using language to prevent communication. Sometimes this is a little frustrating, often it is amusing, and occasionally it is heart breaking, or leads to heart breaking conclusions. One thing you can fairly expect from a Willis novel is a happy ending, although it is often bitter sweet. This pair of books is no exception.
One thing - this is LONG. Plus, once you start, it's very hard to stop - the pace is inexorable. Clear a weekend, because you won't get much sleep.
Laurie King - To Play the Fool
(recommended by my wife, who reads.)
If you've been reading these posts, you know about Laurie King - she writes the Sherlock Holmes post WWI novels. This is two or three books into her other series, the Kate Martinelli series. This series is set in present San Francisco, and focus on police detective Kate Martinelli. My wife has been enjoying the Holmes books, and there's a cross over between the two detectives (which is odd, since these books are set in the present), so she started the Martinellis, and she handed this one to me, so I read it. It was exceedingly good. Martinelli investigates the death of a homeless man. The prominent suspect is a Holy Fool - a sort of itinerant monk who speaks entirely in quotations (from the Bible, from Shakespeare, from Gilbert and Sullivan, from all over). He's not crazy, he's part of a movement which seeks (or sought, he seems to be the last one) to expose meaning in the world through acting as if they lack meaning. In the context of Shakespeare, the fool in King Lear serves as a model - through foolish acting, the fool can speak truth to power. The Fools seek to do the same in our modern world, to mixed effect.
I found this book fit very nicely with the rest of what I was reading. The Fools (or, well, Brother Erasmus) act as a foil for the dehumanizing effects of modern life, and so the theme fit with Dreadnought. Erasmus, and Martinelli, are heroes because of their dogged devotion to their personal cause, and so the theme fit with the Willis as well. Plus, King writes very nicely, and I appreciated that too. A surprisingly deep, and deeply satisfying, novel. Unconditional recommendation.
James Knapp - State of Decay
A debut novel for Mr. Knapp, this book features war, zombies, and police detectives. The war seems to be some sort of endless extension of the War on Terror (this is never really stated, but rather broadly implied - if we are entering into a forever war, then Knapp has described the outcome in his mind) and the zombies are the troops used to fight the war - the revivors, the re-animated corpses of those too poor or too insignificant to avoid being pressed into posthumous service. There are two ways to avoid being made into a revivor - one is to rise to the top of society as a scientist or engineer or businessperson. The other is to volunteer for pre-humous service - one way or another, service in the cause is guaranteed.
The novel follows a group of characters from various stratas of society as they work their way through life in this brave new world. A police detective struggles to make sense of a series of killings, an FBI agent deals with a zombie smuggling ring (for cheap labor, and also cheap thrills - some people like to pay for sex with revivors, it seems), a confused woman has visions of people asking her for help, and a lower class woman makes her living as a professional wrestler. Together, they unravel a complicated conspiracy, involving the zombies (naturally) and the government (sort of), and a shadowy group of shadowy people who are trying to run the world.
That description makes the whole thing sound cheap, doesn't it? It's not - this is quite well written, the characters are strong, the plot was strong, and the whole thing was quite enjoyable. Now, what remains to be seen is if Mr. Knapp will attempt a sequel - I think that will be a mistake, frankly - or is able to go off in an entirely different direction, either loosely within this setting, or somewhere else. That book would be worth reading, I think, and I'll keep my eye out for it. (edit - I note that State of Decay is the first of a trilogy - I won't go out of my way to avoid the second book [The Silent Army - out now], but I'm not putting it on my library reserve list.)
Rick Riordan - Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters
This is the second of the Percy Jackson books. I picked up the first one when the movie came out, and it was fun. This one was better than the first - fewer points where I wanted to shake the characters and shout "how could you miss that plot point, are you STUPID?!," but still not a hugely deep novel. The premise of the series - the Greek gods continue to exist and have limited influence upon the world, mostly through their half-deity offspring. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades have taken a vow (post WWII) not to have kids anymore. Zeus, Poseidon, and Hades are the three big gods, and their offspring tend to have bigger and less intended consequences in the world (like World War Two). When I tell you that Percy (Perseus) Jackson is the son of Poseidon, you will begin to see how well the Greek gods tend to keep their promises, even to each other. The teen children of the various gods struggle against re-imagined monsters of myth (Hydra is responsible for commercial franchises, for instance), and the whole thing is a fun romp, just not all that deep.