review: the lazarus gate

The Lazarus Gate by Mark A. Latham (2015)

While haunting the science fiction/fantasy section of the bookstore a couple of weekends ago, I picked up the second book in this series–The Iscariot Sanction–and was intrigued enough to seek out the first book, The Lazarus Gate.  This year has been about completing and catching up on some book series I have been reading, but now that the year is almost over and I’m starting to build my reading list for 2017, I’m looking for new authors and new series to sample.  Enter The Lazarus Gate by Mark A. Latham.  I call this a series because each one appears to be part of a greater whole–The Apollonian Casefiles.  One thing that is still to be determined is if these books necessarily have to be read in order of publication.  Based upon the blurb on the back cover of the second book and after completing the first book, my initial thought is that they can be read in any order.

The story is set in London, 1890.  The main protagonist of The Lazarus Gate is Captain John Hardwick.  He has recently returned to London after serving for six years in the Far East in Her Majesty’s Army.  At the start of the book, John has been released from his captivity as a prisoner of war. During his captivity, he was subjected to torture and turned into an opium addict.  Upon his return to London, he is certainly not the man he was when he left, and with no family or real home to return to, he is adrift and uncertain what the future holds after being honorably discharged from the Army.  He has only been home a week when he receives a letter from Sir Toby Fitzwilliam to join him at the Apollonian Club.  John accepts the invitation and after listening to Sir Toby’s pitch, becomes initiated into the inner sanctum of the club that operates as a secret service that identifies and eliminates threats to the Crown and the British Empire.  John’s first assignment is to uncover the perpetrators of dynamite explosions that have shaken the city in recent weeks.  As the story unfolds, John learns that those responsible for the attacks are from an alternate universe, that his version of London is only one in a multiverse.  Though there are some elements of the supernatural–psychic visions and apparitions, primarily–the story leans more toward science fiction than the paranormal/supernatural.  Indeed, one of the characters in the novel is philosopher William James (yes, brother to Henry James).  James’ character endeavors to explain the existence of alternative universes and the idea of a multiverse, using science and the scientific method to support his theories and conclusions. Latham is careful to include a conflict between science and religion during James’ explanation, as would be appropriate to the late Victorian era, and it is one of only many details that give the novel the feeling of authenticity in terms of portraying the time period.  One of the other details is the emphasis upon the Apollonian Club’s mandate to protect the Empire against all enemies, foreign and domestic, if you will.  In this story, the Empire is under attack, and the attack is carried out at the very heart of the Empire–the capital of the metropole and, in the eyes of the British at least, the center of the world. The way that Latham characterizes the fear of an invasion of London by outsiders illustrates the fears that Londoners and Britons had during the late Victorian era that enemies of the Empire would strike against them in the very place where they felt the safest and least threatened by the strife and unrest that existed on the farther reaches of the Empire. The fear of reverse colonization radiates through the narrative, as well as all of the questions attendant to empire-building and colonization.  Because my academic research interests lie so closely to this time period and the implications of Empire, I love this particular aspect of the novel and it alone will bring me back for additional installments of this series.

John is a character that engaged my interest from the beginning.  The narrative is told from his first-person point of view, and it is framed as a journal account that he is writing from the distance of time.  He is likable and fallible and goes through what would be expected of a man who is taking on the role of covert spy for the first time.  As he moves through his character arc, he questions who he can trust, faces temptation and struggles with his addiction, and eventually, for Queen and Country, evolves into the man who can defeat the Empire’s enemy and prevent the invasion from succeeding.  Without spoiling the end, at the close of the novel John is certainly not the man he was when we first meet him.  Though he does not seem to lose his loyalty to his country and its protection, things are not nearly as black and white as they were at the start of his journey, and there are greater shades of moral ambiguity visible in him.

I would comment on the world-building of the novel, and yet it appears that the world that Latham builds in The Lazarus Gate will be slightly different from but slightly the same as the one that we will discover in The Iscariot Sanction.  Again, not to spoil anything, we are sure to definitely find at least one character we met in The Lazarus Gate in The Iscariot Sanction, and yet it will clearly be a different version of the individual.  For me, this is one of the things that can keep the series fresh and make it fun–seeing characters you have met before but at the same time knowing that these are not the same characters.  They will, I presume, feel familiar but also wildly different.  In this sense, the series has the opportunity to explore paths not taken, how lives could truly be different had not one choice been made or one event not occurred, even as it offers the opportunity to consider how who we are, at our core, influences us to the extent that even if there are infinite possibilities, we are in a sense hardwired to make the same choices regardless of which universe we inhabit.

In short, The Lazarus Gate does many of the things that we expect from our science fiction.  It questions the universe in which we live, it uses science to help us understand the nature of our world, and it looks at the capacity individuals have to be good, evil, or somewhere in between.  It makes us question what would we risk, what consequences and actions would we accept, if our very survival were on the line? The book does have its flaws–it starts a little slowly, and for this reader the pace is also a little slow, and there is a section of the novel, primarily in Part 2, that is a kind of pastoral interlude that takes a bit too long in revealing why it’s important and relevant to the story as a whole and John’s character arc–but it was a good read, and I’m interested in seeing where it goes.  If you are a fan of Fringe, alternate realities/alternate universes, and/or the late Victorian era, I would recommend giving The Lazarus Gate a try.

 

 

 

review: the devil you know

The Devil You Know by Mike Carey (2007)

I tried really hard not to allow myself to do this, but alas, I have no willpower when it comes to books.  The Devil You Know by Mike Carey is the first in a series featuring exorcist Felix “Fix” Castor, and although I’ve been trying to avoid starting a new series this year, I took only forty-five days for me to fail at my goal.  Oh well.  Moving on.

The world Carey creates and that Castor inhabits is present-day London, but I wouldn’t necessarily put this into the urban fantasy genre.  What makes this London just a little different is that the dead have risen–not all of them, of course, but enough for the people of the world to notice.  Ghosts are also visible to the common, everyday person.  This is where Castor comes in–he’s a modern-day Ghostbuster.  If you have an “infestation” so to speak, he’s the guy you call.  Or that is, he was.  Until the start of this story, Castor had turned away from the life of exorcism because of a mistake that had great consequences for one of his friends.  To make money, Castor intends to set himself as a magician to perform for children’s parties, but the opening tableau of the novel demonstrates that this is not going to be a successful endeavor for him.  Just in time, it seems, he’s offered a job to exorcise a ghost that is haunting a building that houses a document archive.  At first he refuses, but events conspire and he reluctantly accepts the job.  From here, Castor’s skills and experience with exorcism blend into a nascent desire to solve the mystery surrounding the ghost and why she is haunting this specific place to begin with.  It is, in a way, the origin story for a exorcist-cum-detective.  In fact, although this book has the element of the supernatural, I’d actually more firmly place it in the detective fiction genre than urban fantasy.

But don’t go thinking that Castor falls into the mode of Philip Marlowe.  The Devil You Know does incorporate elements of noir and hard-boiled detective fiction.  There’s the mystery within the mystery that is intricate and takes time for Castor to unravel.  There’s the femme fatale in the form of Juliet, a succubus that is raised from Hell to kill Castor.  There’s the fact that the plot itself involves the seedy underbelly of the city.  One of the other things about the novel that reminds me of Raymond Chandler is the lush prose and diction.  Here’s an example: “Polished bare boards bore the muddy paw prints of early-evening punters.” I read that sentence several times and couldn’t help but admire Carey’s style. I should probably say here that American readers not accustomed to British phrases and idioms might find themselves a little puzzled by some of the things Castor says in narrating his story, but it’s not so pervasive that it would discourage casual readers.  The narrative is told from a first-person point-of-view, and as a narrator Castor is engaging and pulls me into the story.  However, there are times when the narrative pace really slows down, and to be honest, the novel is a bit slow.  The moment when this is most noticeable is during an exposition-heavy chapter where Castor confronts the murderer and details how and why the murder occurred.  The momentum that the narrative had managed to build up to that point comes to a crashing halt, and this particular chapter is the one that precedes the crisis and final showdown.  So you know what happened, how the various characters were involved, and why the ghost is haunting the archive.  At the same time, I felt like I was slogging through this part as I was reading.  It’s a first-person narrative, and Castor does move from place to place as he investigates the case and this helps drive the story, but at the same time, it feels like there’s very little action.

Since this is the first in a series, I would usually want to talk about the supporting cast. There’s not one to speak of to any great extent in The Devil You Know.  The person who Castor is closest to is his friend and landlady, Pen. He lives in her house, and they were at university together.  Pen also happens to be the old lover of Rafi, the person I named above who Castor tried to exorcise a ghost from, only to find that his friend was actually possessed by a demon.  Castor also has a brother–Matt–who makes one appearance in the novel, and I could see him popping up in future books.  Finally, there’s Juliet the succubus, who seems to be staying in Castor’s world.  Really, though, that’s about it, and I’m not sure if this is a good or bad thing.  Rafi’s story is definitely not at a close, and although Juliet promises to be interesting at the very least, she and Pen are still mostly unknown quantities and their roles in the series going forward remain very much a mystery.

The natural question I always ask myself after reading the first book in a series–will I read more?  It surprises me how difficult it is for me to give a definitive answer to this question because honestly, my response is I don’t know.  Maybe.  Maybe not. It’s like that pilot episode of a new show where you’re not necessarily turned off, but you’re not waiting impatiently for the next episode either; where you don’t know if you should give it a second chance to impress you or cut your losses now.  Right now, I’m not sure which way I’m going to go.

Have you read this series? If so, does it get better?

review: dead beat

Note: Dead Beat is the 7th book in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher.  If you haven’t read the previous books in the series, you may want to look away now.

Dead Beat by Jim Butcher (2005)

There’s a tiny part of me that has been reluctant to post reviews for the books in the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher. Mostly because I don’t want to spoil plot points for new readers. Trust me, if you haven’t read the series from the beginning, avert your eyes and go and pick up Storm Front. I have been reading this series for a while now and I love it.  In fact, I credit this series with introducing me to all the goodness that urban fantasy has to offer, and I repeatedly recommend it to readers who are skeptical about the sci-fi/fantasy genre as a whole.  Yes, this series has as its protagonist a wizard, but it isn’t just about all that is supernatural and what goes bump in the night.

Harry Dresden – Wizard.  His beat is Chicago, and that’s another thing I like about this series. I happen to love Chicago, and I love all the references to places in the city that I have been to.  This particular novel has several scenes that take place at the Field Museum and the big skeleton of Tyrannosaurus Rex plays an important role in the end of the story. Here’s your basic plot summary that is hopefully free of spoilers.  Harry is summoned by Mavra, the Red Court vampire with whom he had an epic battle a couple of books ago.  Mavra wants to meet Harry at his grave—yes, Harry has his own grave, courtesy of some of his enemies as a reminder that they intend to put him in it post haste.  The inscription on the tombstone reads, “He died doing the right thing.”  Needless to say, it creeps Harry out, but he goes to meet Mavra anyway because she is threatening Karrin Murphy, head of Special Investigations for the Chicago PD and Harry’s friend.  Mavra demands that Harry bring her The Word of Kemmler in exchange for incriminating photos that could land Murphy in jail if turned over to the police.  Being the kind of guy Harry is, he is willing to do what he has to do to save Murphy.  Also typical of Harry, he has no idea what The Word of Kemmler is, but he’s going to find out, and as usual, it’s not going to be anything good.

Although Murphy is being threatened by Mavra, she’s actually absent for nearly the entirety of the novel, so Butcher has to surround Harry with old and new friends and enemies.  Queen Mab makes an appearance, as do Thomas and Bob, Billy and Georgia, and Gentleman Johnnie Marcone.  There’s also Harry’s new dog, Mouse, and even Morgan the Council Warden returns to Chicago.  Indeed, the people in Harry’s life are an important part of Harry’s evolution.  At the beginning of the series, Harry was the typical loner, isolated from the wizard community and not entirely fitting into the “human” world.  Over the course of the series, Harry has lost some people that he cared about, but he has also become part of a family.  Now more than ever before, Harry has a lot to lose, but that also means he has a lot to protect.  It’s not just Harry and his cat, Mister.  It’s Mouse, and Thomas, and Murphy, and Billy and Georgia, and even Bock–a bookstore owner who at one point in the novel tells Harry that he doesn’t want him coming into his store anymore because trouble always follows him.  It’s a horrible moment for Harry, and though he understands Bock’s request, it’s sad too because Harry thinks it’s no less than he deserves. This is all to say that the supporting characters that Butcher brings into the novel are wonderfully drawn and they do exactly what they are supposed to do—show us different parts of Harry’s character, the inner conflicts that he struggles with, and why he keeps going even when all odds are against him. Butcher surrounds Harry with people who care about him, believe in him, and help him to see the good inside of him.  They give him reason to hope and make the struggle worthwhile.

There’s a lot happening in this book, but the part I want to focus on is something that happens near the end.  One of the characteristics of hardboiled detective fiction is that the detective finds himself in a situation where he faces temptation and is forced to cross a line that violates his personal code of ethics in order to save lives.  Harry finds himself in this very situation, and indeed crosses a line.  I have no doubt that it will be a choice that haunts him as the series continues.  It’s a combination of yielding to the temptation of power, doing what must be done to save lives, and having to live with the consequences.  Harry says several times in the novel that he doesn’t think of himself as a hero.  He doesn’t even think of himself as a good person, but now there’s the sense that he has absorbed just a little of the corruption and evil that he fights against. His soul bears a permanent scar that mirrors the physical scar on his hand. In this book, Harry is fundamentally changed on the inside.

With each new installment, Butcher succeeds in making Harry more complex and conflicted.  He forces readers to question the nature of heroism and the personal costs to the individual who would act heroically. Harry does not live in a black and white world, and because of that he cannot be wholly good and succeed in defeating evil.  If you like well-written, suspenseful action stories with strong characters, read the books in this series.  Harry Dresden might just become one of your favorite characters.

 

review: i am legend

I Am Legend by Richard Matheson (1954)

In reading descriptions of this novel, oftentimes the first thing written is that I Am Legend a horror novel.  After reading the book, I would definitely disagree with the categorization of the novel in the horror genre.  I wasn’t terrified or particularly on edge while reading the book.  Sure, there is dramatic tension in the novel, but nothing that would make me fear sleeping in the dark.  To me, that’s the feeling I have after reading a horror novel.  I think the novel is more properly placed in the sci-fi/fantasy genre, and this is all to say that if you don’t like reading from the horror genre, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.

Summarizing the plot of the story is fairly simple, and yet my summary leaves a lot of plot points out because I don’t want to spoil the entire plot and action of the novel.  The protagonist is Robert Neville, a man in his mid-thirties living in the suburbs of Los Angeles.  The thing that makes Robert Neville unique is that he is the last man on earth—that is, he’s the last non-infected man on earth.  The story begins in January 1976, and we come to find out that at that time, Robert Neville has been alone for about eight months, and that it was only ten months before the story begins that a plague started to infect the inhabitants of Earth.  Most of those infected with the plague began to exhibit vampire-like tendencies—unable to handle sunlight, spending the day in a kind of coma, recoiling from garlic and crosses, etc.  As this plague rapidly spread across the earth and decimated the population, no one was able to come up with an explanation for the plague or a cure.  Neville’s own wife and daughter fall victim to the plague, and though he has searched long, Neville comes to realize that he is the only survivor of the plague, though the exact reason for his immunity remains a mystery for much of the novel.  Although Neville is the sole survivor of the plague (or perhaps because of this) he is the target of the vampires, particularly Ben Cortman.  The vampires come to Neville’s house each night yelling at him to come out, but Neville has secured his home so that he is safe as long as he remains inside while it’s dark, and he’s amassed all of the frozen foods and necessaries of life he needs to survive; what he doesn’t have or runs out of, he looks for during the daytime.  Also during the daytime, he hunts and kills vampires while they are in their coma-like sleep and unable to fight back.  The plot is driven by the inner conflicts that Neville struggles with (particularly his inability to fully leave behind the past and accept the present, as well as the question of what kind of future awaits him) as well as his endeavors to learn how the plague developed and spread and attempting to find a cure, and finally his struggles against the vampires.

Vampires—I know what some of you may be thinking.  Even if you have had enough of vampires to last you for the next decade, don’t immediately pass over I Am Legend.  Yes, the vampires are the threat that Neville has to fight against, but really, this book isn’t about vampires.  It’s very much a psychological study of how one man deals with the isolation and loneliness of being the last surviving member of the human race.  When one is so completely and utterly alone, how does that shift the way one thinks of morality and ethics?  When one believes himself to live in an environment whose primary rule is kill or be killed, what actions are permissible?  It delves into the consequences and constructions of a “me vs. them” mentality.  It meditates on the question of what it means to be human.  It also questions the legitimacy of using violence in order to establish and maintain order in a new society.  Further still, because of its apocalyptic setting, the novel can perhaps be read as a cautionary tale.  There is so much more to this book than the vampires that collectively act as the antagonist to Robert Neville.

In truth, I don’t think I would have picked this book up if it weren’t for my interest in teaching it in a class where the emphasis is upon novels that have been adapted into films.  If I just had the synopsis on the back cover to go by (and it is worth saying here that I haven’t seen the recent 2007 film adaptation of the novel) I probably wouldn’t have made the decision to read the book.  While I am a fan of the sci-fi/fantasy genre, this wouldn’t have really peaked my interest.  I am glad, though, that I have read the novel.  I think it’s an excellent example of the “man alone” narrative plot, and again, the psychological study of Robert Neville is something that I found to be really compelling.  He’s a man who has no other options—or, at least, believes he has no other options—and this is something that always intrigues me in terms of character, mainly because it lets me ask my students what else could he be expected to do.  The question of whether or not this is a recommended read is a difficult one to answer.  On the one hand, I had no problems putting the book down.  I do think the pacing is a little slow, and there really is only the one character to focus on—Robert.  On the other hand, I really like Matheson’s narrative style, particularly his diction, as well as the way he portrays Robert as being haunted by the past, stuck in the present, and uncertain of the future.  Final analysis: it’s a good book, but not one of my top 10 reads over the last twelve months.

review: hounded

Hounded by Kevin Hearne (2011)

As much as I try to read what is already on my bookshelf or loaded onto my Kindle, there are times when I just want to buy a new, shiny book.  This is how I discovered Hounded by Kevin Hearne.  I didn’t exactly know what I wanted to read and I spent a while searching Earth’s biggest bookstore, but I eventually stumbled onto this book and it seemed like it might be what I was looking for, so I took a chance and splurged.  Hounded, the first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, didn’t disappoint.

The protagonist is Atticus O’Sullivan, a 2,100-year-old Druid who lives in Tempe, Arizona and runs an occult shop that sells, among other things, various kinds of teas.  He rides his bike to work, takes the time to chat with the elderly widow, Mrs. Donaghue, who lives on his street and does various tasks and yard work for her.  Mrs. Donaghue is Irish and feels a kinship with Atticus for that reason. He also has an Irish wolfhound named Oberon who he can communicate with telepathically.  The relationship between Atticus and Oberon is wonderful; it adds humor and emotion to the story.  These two relationships appear to be the most trusting, loyal, and important connections he has with others.  For centuries, Atticus has been hiding out from his archenemy, Aenghus Og, the god of love in Atticus’ pantheon of gods.  It turns out that over two thousand years ago, Atticus came into possession of a sword of power—Fragarach, the Answerer—and Aenghus has wanted it back ever since.  Indeed, that is the main plot of this book—Aenghus Og’s pursuit of Atticus and Fragarach, and the machinations he employs to get what he wants while Atticus, of course, spends his time trying to thwart Aenghus’ evil master plan.  True to the conventions of myths involving heroes and gods, Atticus is both helped and hindered by other gods within his pantheon, and also true to convention, the motives of those gods is sometimes suspect and self-interested.  Case in point, Atticus has a long history with the Morrigan, goddess of death, and Flidais, goddess of the hunt. In this book he meets Brighid, who is the current reigning god of the Fae realm.  As the novel unfolds, it becomes clear that these goddesses are very willing to use Atticus as a pawn to achieve their own ends.

In addition to the supporting characters listed above, Atticus is friends with the local Tempe pack of werewolves, one of whom—Hal Hauk—is his attorney of record.  His other attorney—Leif—is a vampire, and at times, Atticus pays Leif’s attorney fees with a glass of his own blood, which of course, being 2,100 years old, carries lots of power.  Rounding out the supporting cast is Granuaile, a mysterious young woman who works in one of Atticus’ favorite watering holes and Malina Kosolowski, a witch in the local coven (and by the way, Atticus does not like or trust witches).  It seems to me that based upon the way Hounded ends, these two characters have the potential to become integral parts of the world that Hearne is creating.  In sum, one of the things I liked about this book is that as a first book in a series, it presents an interesting and, dare I say it, fresh cast of supporting characters that don’t feel like recycled character types and stories.  I also liked these characters and wanted to get to know more about each of them.  And although Atticus very much belongs in the category of loner, supernatural, long-lived protagonists, I don’t feel like he’s a carbon copy of every other male protagonist I encounter in urban sci-fi/fantasy.

I said this before in my review of Fated by Benedict Jacka, but one of the things I want from the first book in a series is for it to give me a reason to want to pick up the second book in the series straightaway.  While I didn’t feel that Fated was as successful as it could have been on that particular level, I do think Hounded succeeds without question.  The characters and the world that Hearne is building are appealing and engaging, and the pace of the novel was fast but not rushed or clumsy.  I had a hard time putting the book down when bedtime rolled around, and I couldn’t wait to pick it back up again after work.  I compare this book to Fated because it was the last first-book-in-the-series that I read, but the reality is that I tend to compare all books in this genre that feature a male protagonist to one of my favorite series—Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files.  I doubt Harry and Atticus would get along, but I do think they would respect each other.  So many of the things I love about the Dresden series are present in the Iron Druid series, and that’s a compliment I haven’t paid to a book in a while.  I was inclined to pick up the next Alex Verus book to see how Jacka would continue to evolve his characters and his fictional world, but I wasn’t in a hurry to get my hands on the next installment.  My response to Hearne’s series is different in that I really do want to read the next installment and at this point, I can see myself consuming each book in rapid fashion if I don’t restrain myself.

If you enjoy the Harry Dresden books, or if you enjoy urban sci-fi/fantasy featuring strong male protagonists and good supporting characters that aren’t merely tools for advancing the action and creating tension and conflict, or if you enjoy serial fiction and are in the market for a new series, I would recommend sampling this first book in the Iron Druid Chronicles.  It’s not the same old, same old worn-out story with the same old, same old worn out characters.  It’s fun, light, and satisfying.

review: guards! guards!

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett (1989)

Guards! Guards! by Terry Pratchett is the starter novel in the City Watch story arc and the eighth book in the Discworld series.

The cast of characters in this novel is extensive, but it works because the plot itself has a lot of different layers and intricacies.  We have the characters that make up the City Night Watch—Captain Vimes, Sergeant Colon, Lieutenant Nobby and Lance-Corporal Carrot, the newbie.  Carrot and Vimes are the most interesting characters thus far.  Carrot is 6-foot-6 and is a foundling who was raised by dwarves.  Guessing that it would be better for Carrot to be with “his own kind” his father gets him a job with the City Watch, and a friend of the family gives him a rules and regulations book for the Watch and tells him to read it because an officer of the law should know the rules and regulations of the law he is sworn to uphold.  This makes for some funny shenanigans because the book is clearly out of date, and the laws in the book are no longer in force and effect; Carrot doesn’t seem to grasp this, nor does he understand the other Watch officers who look the other way and allow crime to happen.  The first thing he does is arrest the head thief in the Thieves Guild, which shocks and appalls everyone.  Captain Vimes on the other hand is a jaded, cynical man who has been “brung low by a woman” and he drowns himself in alcohol.  Eventually, though, all of the men of the Night Watch will have to involve themselves in the latest attempt at a coup d’état.  They won’t end up as “heroes” but they’ll be the closest thing to a hero you can find in the city of Ankh-Morpork.

Leading that coup is a shadowy figure called the Supreme Grand Master, whose identity we don’t learn for a long while (and I was surprised, though I wonder that I should have been).  The Supreme Grand Master wants to overthrow the Patrician and install a King that will do what he tells him to do, making him a kind of Cardinal Richelieu figure.  He thinks that the best way to do this is to endanger the city of Ankh-Morpork with a threat that only a young, future king can defeat, and in doing so will be crowned as monarch and ruler.  His plan is to summon a dragon, and he does this by arranging for the theft of a magical book from the Library of Unseen University.  Thus, the Librarian makes several appearances in this novel and embarks on a trip to L-space (where all libraries in the universe are connected).  Anyway, the dragon is successfully summoned, wreaks ten kinds of havoc on the city, and as you might guess, the dragon turns the tables and becomes the master, so that the dragon is installed as King of Ankh-Morpork. While the first half of the book is about trying to figure out how the dragon has arrived in the city, the second half of the novel is about trying to figure out how to defeat the dragon.

Meanwhile, the Patrician is stripped of his power and thrown into the Palace dungeon.  The Patrician (Lord Vetinari) has become one of my favorite recurring characters who doesn’t have his own storyline.  I just read Sourcery and he makes an appearance in that book but his appearance in Guards! Guards! is a bit more substantial.  Death also makes an appearance and is good for at least one laugh, but it’s more like a bit part than anything else.  There’s also a reference to Mort and Princess Keli from Mort.  This is one of the things that I love about the Discworld novels so far.  They can stand alone, and yet if you’ve read any of the previous books there’s a good chance there will be a reference to someone or something that is a bit of reward for being an attentive reader.

Another notable character is Errol, one of the swamp dragons bred by Lady Sybil Ramkin (she’s pretty much the only female character in the novel).  According to Lady Ramkin, Errol’s genetics are just wrong somehow, and so he’s more of a pet than a stud for her swamp dragon breeding endeavors.  So she gives him as a gift to Captain Vimes, and he becomes a kind of mascot for the Night Watch.  What’s interesting about him though is that he is a character very similar to the Luggage from the Rincewind story arc.  He doesn’t speak, but he has his role to play.  He doesn’t exactly know how to execute the part he’s supposed to play, but eventually he figures it out and helps to save the day.

The story is a playful take on the King Arthur legend which ultimately gets turned on its head, mostly because Ankh-Morpork is no place for the knights of the round table.  On one level, I liked that this was more of an “ensemble” drama that told the stories of many different people.  On the other hand, I think I prefer the stories that have an identifiable main character.  If you haven’t read any of the Discworld books, I still recommend starting with the first novel (The Colour of Magic).  If you’re like me and still relatively new to the series, I think you’ll enjoy Guards! Guards!. I wouldn’t say it’s my favorite so far, but I was definitely entertained.  This book has been my “fun” reading for the last couple of weeks and it didn’t disappoint.

review: mort

Mort by Terry Pratchett (1987)

Mort is the first book in the Death story arc of the Discworld series by Terry Pratchett, and the fourth book in the series overall.  If you’re new to the Discworld series, I highly recommend reading the books in publication order (though some readers will recommend reading each story arc in chronological order).  I also recommend referring to this chart that maps out where each book falls in the various story arcs within the Discworld series.   As you might have guessed from the title, the story follows the adventures of Mort, a young boy whose father thinks he spends too much time reading and thinking.  Mort’s father decides to send him out to be an apprentice and learn a trade, mostly because he doesn’t know what else to do with him since reading and thinking skills aren’t desirable in their agricultural community.  Together, Mort and his father go to the market where those wanting to be an apprentice and those looking for an apprentice meetup.  The market day ends at midnight, and at just a few minutes before the close of the market Mort is the only one who hasn’t been selected.  Then, in rides Death, who happens to be looking for an apprentice.  Of course, Death finds Mort’s name to be entirely appropriate, but as the story unfolds, no one calls Mort by his name.  Indeed, that is one of the running jokes throughout the novel and yet it is significant when the people in Mort’s life begin calling him by his name, but I won’t spoil that for you.

Since this is the starter novel in the Death story arc, it is appropriate that we learn some interesting things about Death.  He has a permanent smile on his face, it makes him angry when someone drowns kittens, his black steed is named Binky, he can operate and exist outside of Time, and he has a daughter whose name is Ysabell.  Perhaps most interesting is that Death cannot create anything, he can only copy something that already exists.  The fact that Death cannot experience any human emotions is equally important.  What Pratchett has done in this novel is put a spin on the “Death takes a holiday” motif, but he does more than that.  Death not only wants to take a few days off, he also wants to understand human emotions.  He already understands the appreciation for food—he murders a curry at the start of the novel—but he also wants to experience things like fun and drunkenness, and he also wants to know what it would be like to have a friend, to not always be avoided, hated, and ignored.  Pratchett masterfully imbues Death with all the qualities that we as humans feel toward death—such as not wanting to talk or think about it and desiring to avoid it at all costs—and then shows us how Death responds to being alienated in such a way by everyone in society.  Death is the ultimate pariah, and as the story progresses what he searches for is a release from that condition.  Death just wants to be like everyone else.

But as Death takes a holiday and becomes more and more unwilling to go back to the Duty that is his, someone has to do Death’s job, and the Duty falls upon his bumbling and completely engaging apprentice, Mort.  Mort goes out each day to escort the souls of the departed to their final resting places, but of course there is one person he can’t bear to see die—the young Princess Keli.  He doesn’t complete the Duty in her case but instead brings death to her would-be assassin.  In doing so, however, he throws Reality and History into chaos.  It was fated that the princess would die in that assassination attempt, and though she is very much still alive, everyone in the kingdom believes she is dead and consequently, even though they see her, seeing her makes them uncomfortable and they immediately forget her when they look away because History has already declared that she died in the assassination attempt.  Thus, one of the main threads of the story arises from Mort finding a way to fix Reality.  Just as the thread of the plot surrounding Death encourages readers to think about how they view death, Mort’s thread of the plot prods readers to think about how our perspectives on History and Reality can be manipulated and to ask ourselves the question: is the future really set in stone?  Is History set in stone or is it malleable and changeable?

Mort definitely falls into the category of satire, but it’s also just a fun, entertaining, and amusing read.  Mort and Death shine as the main characters, and the supporting cast of characters is quirky and well-developed.  I came to have strong opinions about Princess Keli in particular, and I loved that Rincewind (from the Rincewind story arc and whose adventures we follow in the first and second novels in the series—The Colour of Magic and The Light Fantastic, respectively) made an appearance in the last quarter of the story.  I’m reading the novels in publication order and this one is definitely my favorite so far.  The blend of the hero’s journey, the star-crossed lovers plotline, and Death’s quest to find meaning in his life create a wonderful tale that kept me turning the pages.  I would definitely recommend this book to readers who have yet to discover the Discworld series and readers who like reading in the science fiction/fantasy genre.  I also recommend this book to readers who are skeptical of the sci/fi genre because to say that that is all this book is would be to do it an incredible disservice.  It may be set on the Discworld, but there’s a lot that we can learn from the Discworld about our own world and ourselves.

review: fated

Fated by Benedict Jacka (2012)

Fated is the first installment in the Alex Verus series.  Alex is a mage living in London where he runs a magic shop.  He is not necessarily on the good side of the Council, the power center of Mage society.  As you might expect, Mage society is stratified, and there are further differences between Light Mages and Dark Mages.  Alex, who has good reasons to dislike the Council as well as Dark Mages, really just wants to be left alone, but inevitably he is dragged into the struggle for power between the two opposing factions.  Alex is a diviner, which means that he can see into the future (and at times, there are echoes of the Oracle in The Matrix, who reminds us that she cannot see past a choice that hasn’t yet been made).  In Alex, then, we have a cerebral mage who uses his brain rather than his physical brawn to solve problems.  Although Alex is not in the Council’s favor, he is the only diviner in London, and so they are forced to ask for his help in opening the recently discovered Precursor Relic and retrieving a powerful magical artifact called a fateweaver before it falls into the hands of a Dark Mage.  Power struggles ensue with Alex caught in the middle, and of course he must survive on his wits and a little bit of luck while saving the day.

The summary of this book might remind you of other series about mages and witches, and I can’t deny that this book definitely shares in common the traits and conventions of stories about magical societies—the “good” vs. “evil” battle, the protagonist who is alienated from the magical society and yet is somehow the only one who can keep that society in balance, the supporting cast of characters that help the protagonist succeed in his challenge, and the underlying suggestion that though the protagonist may be alienated from the magical community, he is not entirely isolated nor is he entirely alone or without people he can trust and depend upon.  There is also the familiar convention of introducing a love interest for the protagonist who is currently out of reach because touching her means death (I’m not going to go into why I find so many things wrong with this convention but seriously? Does every female character have to be a fatal threat to the male protagonist?).  As readers we know why this convention exists—it’s an easy way to build sexual tension and keep two people apart who obviously want to be together, and well, it’s a device that works so it’s no wonder it continues to be used.  Think of the number of times you’ve seen it or even the first time you saw it (Logan and Max in Dark Angel instantly comes to mind).  I would have liked for Jacka to have devised another way of accomplishing this tension and for me that’s probably the aspect of the book I disliked the most.

So what makes this book different? I’m not sure that I would say that it really is different, but I do think that this book does some things really well, especially for the first installment in a series.  The protagonist is likable and engaging.  Alex has a strong voice, and I like the way he addresses readers in order to pull us into the story and imagines what we’re thinking. There’s a moment where he says to the reader something to the effect of: I know you’re wondering why it’s taken me so long to figure this out.  It’s playful and made me smile, and I like that in a book.  Alex doesn’t take himself too seriously.  Another thing that is done well is the cast of supporting characters.  Though I was a bit impatient with the don’t-touch-me-or-you’ll-die device, the introduction of Luna, a young woman who also is on the outside of Mage society, is a good character in that Jacka can do so much with her and say so much about our current society through her.  Other characters that I expect will continue to appear in this series are Starbreeze, a friendly wind spirit that helps Alex get to where he wants to go; Arachne, a giant spider who is also a seamstress and designer of fabulous clothes; and another young mage who I won’t name by name for fear of spoiling part of the story but who reminds me of Spencer Reid on Criminal Minds.  Also, the story has fantastic movement.  There’s only one place where it slows down a bit and that’s primarily a result of giving us some of Alex’s backstory.  Still, this book kept me turning the pages, and it kept my interest engaged.  It made me want to read the next book in the series, and for me, that’s critical in the serial format.

I picked up this book because there was a blurb on it by Jim Butcher, author of the Harry Dresden series, which I am a huge fan of (and indeed, in the first chapter of this book, Alex makes a vague reference to Harry that readers of Butcher’s series will catch instantly).  If you like the Harry Dresden series, I think you will like this book.  Ultimately, Alex Verus is like many of us—he is flawed, he’s made some mistakes, and he’s just trying to do the best he can with what he has to work with.  I think he also is in that tradition of “sleuths” that has to practice situational ethics, which means that sometimes his choices fall into a morally grey area, but I think that that makes his struggles more true to life and makes him more complex as a character.  If you’re looking for a new series to try, I definitely recommend giving Fated by Benedict Jacka a read.

review: a scanner darkly

A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick (1977)

It’s taken me some time to write this review.  I like to start these reviews by giving a brief synopsis of the novel, but getting down in one short paragraph what this novel is about has been a challenge.  A Scanner Darkly follows the story of Fred, an undercover narcotics agent living in Southern California.  Fred’s true identity is supposed to be a secret from everyone, even his handler at the police department, Hank.  In order to maintain his anonymity, Fred meets Hank in a “scramble suit” that continuously scrambles his exterior features, obtaining such characteristics as eye and hair color and other facial features from a database containing millions of possibilities.  Fred’s job is to gather information on and eventually bring to justice various drug dealers, specifically those who deal in Substance D, which alters a person’s brain to the point that it separates his or her left and right hemispheres and ultimately leads to brain death.  Early in the narrative, Hank tasks Fred with the job of conducting surveillance on a man that the police believe may be a major player in the Substance D drug trade—Bob Arctor.  Bob Arctor shares a house with two other “heads”—Barris and Luckman—and he has an unrequited love for Donna, also a drug addict.  The wrinkle is that Fred is Bob Arctor, and so his job is to conduct surveillance on himself.  In his identity as Bob Arctor, he is also addicted to Substance D.  As the narrative unfolds, Fred begins to suffer the effects of Substance D to the point that he forgets that he and Arctor are one and the same person.  One of the primary means of surveillance are “holo-scanners” and as Fred begins to watch the surveillance tapes from the scanners, he comes to see Bob Arctor—the man in the surveillance tapes—as his dark image.  It is in this way that Dick plays upon the biblical verse from I Corinthians 13 which talks of seeing “through a glass darkly.”

The wonderful thing about A Scanner Darkly is that it is making meaning on so many different levels.  On one level, it is a social commentary on how drug addicts are perceived in our culture.  Dick is exploring the ways in which drug lords are able to manipulate supply and demand in order to make money and how these drug lords ruthlessly profit from their customers, unconcerned about the life-altering affects of the drugs they push. While Dick’s commentary is on the drug trade, it can apply to so many other aspects of our contemporary life—pharmaceuticals is the first thing that comes to mind.  So this novel, though published in 1977, is still culturally relevant.

On another level, the novel is exploring questions of identity.  Fred is Bob Arctor, but his ability to remember that fact breaks down as the story progresses as a result of his addiction to Substance D.  His left and right hemispheres separate entirely and fail to communicate but instead compete with each other, so that Fred and Arctor—instead of working together to avoid capture—become adversaries.  In the last fifty pages of the novel or so, Fred receives another identity, and this further complicates his ability to know who he is as well as define his identity.  Another thing that complicates Fred’s identity is the scramble suit.  While wearing it, the image reflected in a mirror is not his own, further distorting his sense of his own identity.  For Fred, identity is fluid, changeable, and available for manipulation, and once he loses his identity as Bob Arctor, he effectively loses a part of himself.  Indeed, it seems as though Dick is playing with that “what if” question that Robert Louis Stevenson was playing with in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde—what if we could divorce our “better” half from our “worse” half?  What would happen?  I wouldn’t call this a Jekyll and Hyde story, but shades of that story do resonate through A Scanner Darkly.

On still another level, A Scanner Darkly is a dystopian fiction.  The story itself is set in 1992, fifteen years in the future.  This device allows Dick to imagine how a drug as deadly and widely abused as Substance D could impact a society and have a forceful effect on the norms and values of that society.  It also acts as a cautionary tale and encourages the reader to consider how other addictions—chemical or not—effectively trap and keep its victim in bondage.

I picked up this book because I am in the early stages of planning an introductory level literature course for Spring 2013.  My initial title for the course is “From Page to Screen” and the course would give students the chance to read the text upon which its film counterpart was based.  I’m not sure I would have picked this book up otherwise, but I’m glad that I did.  Dick’s narrative style here is perfectly suited to the story that he’s telling.  We get the story (mostly) through Fred’s perspective, and as his brain begins to suffer the effects of Substance D and his ability to discern his full reality disintegrates, so too does his ability to narrate in a coherent fashion break down.  It doesn’t go into stream of consciousness, but it does alter, and as a reader I felt my own level of confusion at the same time that Fred himself (or Bob Arctor) was also confused about what was happening.  He loses the ability to know what is real and what isn’t, and as readers, we experience the same difficulty.  For me, that’s one of the things that makes this novel brilliant.

A Scanner Darkly is definitely one of my Recommended Reads.  I can’t guarantee that you’ll like it, but I do think it will make you think, and isn’t that one of the things a good book should accomplish?