Review of Touch by Claire North

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I really enjoyed the World Fantasy Award winner The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North, so I’ve looked up more of her books. She’s fairly prolific under a couple or three different pen names, thus providing me with a lot of future reading material. This book was published in 2015 by Hachette and runs 443 pages.

An assassin guns down Kepler’s host Josephine Cebula, and s/he jumps to another host and then another, realizing the assassin is after him/her. Not only is Kepler angry about Josephine, but the fact that the assassin is looking for the next host means he knows about Kepler’s ability to jump from person to person. Kepler follows the assassin onto a train and captures him, jumping into his body from that of an old man. When s/he has an opportunity to question the man, s/he finds a plot in motion to search out and kill others of his/her kind. Can Kepler stop the plot and revenge Josephine?

Good points: This is another winner. It’s basically a thriller plot about transmigration with a lot of added human interest material that develops the characters, describes their history and makes their world real for us. The chase moves from country to country and from big cities to small villages. On the way, it reveals the workings of an underground culture of beings with consciousness but no physical existence, who can possess a host with just a touch of skin against skin.

Possible not so good point: This is character oriented and moves slowly as a thriller. Likely it’s not for fans of heavy action plots. There were also a couple of instances where I thought the characters violated the rules of their existence, or not. It’s a minor logical hiccup, but not that serious.

Four and a half stars.

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Review of The Sudden Appearance of Hope by Claire North

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This novel was the 2017 winner of the World Fantasy Award. It was published by Redhook/Orbit UK, and runs 468 pages.

Most people totally forget Hope Arden within a minute. This means she can’t hold a job or maintain any serious relationships, and she supports herself by being a world-class thief. Hope is affronted by a woman’s death in Dubai, and partially out of spite, steals the Chrysalis diamonds from the Princess Shamma bint Bandar at a party hosted by the Prometheus Corporation. Prometheus markets an app that recommends actions, purchases and treatments to achieve Perfection. Because of the power and reach of the corporation, Hope finds herself on the run. Allied with a darkweb terrorist called Byron, can she bring down Prometheus?

This is a very complex novel. It’s basically a thriller plot, where Hope and her various allies struggle against the powerful minions of the corporation. It’s also an indictment of our worship of celebrity and perfection, here summed up in the app that guides people in how to become rich and beautiful to the ultimate degree, while also making them slaves to the corporation—meanwhile the ordinary Hope remains invisible. Regardless of the thriller plot, Hope continually digresses into stream of consciousness inspection of her past and the failings of society around her. This includes several prominent cultures because of the multinational quality of the tale. Her eventual solution to the battle with Perfection isn’t simple, either, as Hope’s vulnerability and her emotional responses to the people she meets constantly affect her decisions.

Good points: It’s complex; it’s a thriller; it’s got a lot to say as a mirror for our society. There are some artful cliffhangers, beautiful images, great feelings of place and very complex and well-developed characters. The reader forms emotional bonds with these people.

Not so good points: It’s slow-moving because of all the digressions—I had a hard time getting started because of the pace. The thriller plot could have been a short story or a novella without all the asides, so it’s not the book for people who like fast, hard-hitting action.

I’m going to go five stars on this one. I was impressed.

Review of Lovecraft Country by Matt Ruff

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This book was a finalist for the World Fantasy Awards. It’s a collection of novellas based on the different characters, but it can also be read as a novel. It’s published by HarperCollins and runs 382 pages.

The year is 1954, and African American war veteran Atticus Turner is traveling north to Chicago. His dad Montrose has disappeared somewhere in New England, and with his Uncle George and his friend Letitia, Atticus sets out to find him. They end up at Samuel Braithwhite’s manor, where they learn interesting things about Atticus’ maternal ancestry and encounter Samuel’s son Caleb, who wants to control that legacy. Atticus and his friends soon find themselves dealing with ghosts, warlocks and various arcane events as they’re caught up in the machinations of an ancient cult. Can they save themselves and return to normal lives?

This is an entertaining read, as the characters are all resourceful and end up accomplishing what they need to do through the application of determination and common sense. Regardless of the Jim Crow setting, the characters feel contemporary, as if Ruff has set characters with modern sensibilities into the Lovecraft milieu.

I’ve read some other reviews that promote this book by saying racism is the real horror in the story. I didn’t really see that. If you’re unfamiliar with the facts of Jim Crow segregation and the kind of discrimination African Americans faced in the 1950s, then I suppose this could be a surprise. Presumably Ruff set his story in this period at least partly to display the racial issues, but actually he skims over it as fairly matter-of-fact. Everybody deals and nobody gets lynched.

What really stood out for me instead was the message that these black characters read and treasure the SFF classics of the day by Lovecraft, Burroughs, Bradbury, Asimov, etc., without any disconnect because of their race. Is that so? Currently these writers are all considered to be both racist and sexist because they reflect the attitudes of their era. So, do readers of all races normally transcend racism and sexism to place themselves in a romantic character and a romantic setting? Or is this just an irony that Ruff has inserted in his story? I’d like to hear from people with an opinion.

Four and a half stars.

Review of Roadsouls by Betsy James

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This novel was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and reads like young adult. It’s published by Aqueduct and runs 338 pages. The following may include spoilers.

Duuni is betrothed to a man who has previously abused her and already taken her mother to wife. She rebels and is sentenced to public beating. She escapes and is taken by the Roadsouls. Raim is a hunter and weaver blinded in an accident of overconfidence. In is anger, he refuses anyone’s help and runs away from his family. He is taken by the Roadsouls. The caravan travels from place to place, picking up abandoned children, and supports itself by performing at country fairs while Duuni and Raim face hazards along the road. Can they accept one another and find sanctuary?

Good points: This starts off to be really promising. I love stories about people who are down and out and overcome their disabilities through courage and determination, and this had that feel. The characters and the world are very well drawn with the countryside laid out around a central holy mountain. It’s settled by diverse people with different languages and beliefs, and there’s at least a suggestion of how the economy works. This includes what is likely a good description of a factory at the turn of the 20th century—a reminder of why we have unions and child labor laws. Many people are also going to like this because it’s about rape culture and finding safe spaces in a dangerous world.

Not so good points: It’s a long list. First, there’s not really any fantasy here. There’s no magic other than maybe an imaginary lion that Duuni thinks follows her around. Then it turns out to be about victims and predators. Although warned against it, Duuni and Raim repeatedly go off by themselves, act like victims and get captured and mistreated by bad people. The plot is forced and there are logical failings, especially toward the end, where Amu comes back to the factory where he has sold Raim as a laborer, allowing himself to be killed. He really didn’t need Raim for what he was planning. Miraculously, there’s no pursuit after Raim and Ratling escape and are rescued again by the Roadsouls. This feels anti-capitalist, as factories and “paidmen” are bad elements, while the sanctuaries are communes of artisans and wild children with not much visible means of support. I also gather this is about consent, as Duuni repeatedly makes love with Raim and then says no at the last minute. He waits patiently while she overcomes her fears because he loves her. At the end of the book, he’s still waiting. Everybody robs the dead here. There’s no respect on either side.

Two and a half stars because of the logical failings.

Review of “Bloodybones” by Paul F. Olson

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This novella was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was published for the first time in the author’s collection Whispered Echoes.

David’s friend Amy disappears from her property at Vassey Point during a violent storm. David helps her father close up her home in the old lighthouse, but six months later, he’s drawn to return. He meets Amy’s sister Karen wandering on the property, and the two of them strike up an acquaintance. They begin reading through Amy’s journals, finding creepy things. Can they solve the mystery of what happened to her?

Good points: This is a psychological horror, a ghost story that takes shape as the supernatural closes down slowly but surely on the two protagonists. It’s very smooth and offhand, so I gather Olson is very practiced at this. It includes a lot of information from David (as the narrator) that gives us local color and background on Amy, Karen and the history of the point that’s led to its haunting. Also, I can see the film in my head. This is very cinematic.

Not so good points: The narrator’s casual, matter-of-fact tone keeps the events here from becoming really scary. It’s very white bread and traditional. The techniques for generating horror are fairly standard—enclosed spaces, violent storms, ghostly presences, etc. I appreciate Olson’s technique and subtlety, but this just shivered my nerves a little. It didn’t really scare me.

Four stars.

Review of “Little Widow” by Maria Dahvana Headley

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This short story was a finalist for the 2017 World Fantasy Award. It was originally published by Nightmare.

Natalie is the Littlest Wife of the Preacher, a cult leader in Miracle. She’s at a sleepover when the cult suicides and the compound goes up in flames. Along with her surviving widows Reese and Scarlet, she is adopted by the Stuart family, and starts school. When the carnival comes to town, the girls go to what looks like a strip show, but the woman in the skimpy costume turns out to be Valerie, an angel from heaven who has come to contact them. Valerie has the Preacher in a cage and the girls confront him. She has also brought a shipment of T-Rexs from heaven that she lets loose to take care of some mistakes on the Earth. The four of them escape in a crop duster.

Good points: This story takes on a serious subject, which is how girls and women are often mistreated in patriarchal religious cults. It also takes a jaundiced view of miracles in general that fuel this kind of cult. It’s features good characterization, as we get background on the girls. They’re immigrant children, which suggests the problem with human trafficking.

Not so good points: This has a touch of surrealism, as the story moves from what could be reality to clear unreality when the girls meet Valerie. At this point, it’s actually less interesting. I was hoping it would follow through on the dramatic opening. Instead, this looks like another attack on the patriarchy. There are no male characters that don’t leer, and all the women are avengers. Even the dinosaurs are all female. Also, I’m not sure what the pterodactyl is about.

Three stars.

Review of “The Fall Shall Further the Flight In Me” by Rachael K. Jones

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This short story was a finalist for the World Fantasy Award. It was originally published in Clockwork Phoenix 5. The title (and maybe the idea) is taken from a George Herbert poem titled “Easter Wings.”

Ananda is an earthbound holy woman, attempting to rise through repentance and self-denial so she can carry prayers upward to the heavens. She eats only seed cakes and works in her thorny garden. In this way, she expects to eventually become thin enough, and light enough, to step into the air like her grandmother. One day one of the winged sky people falls into the garden, bringing a message. Ananda rescues the creature Sano and tends her wounds. Sano kisses her, and Ananda locks her in the hut. It takes a week to purge the defilement. It took Ananda’s grandmother 40 years to rise, and her mother failed in flight, but Ananda is already so light that she puts rocks in her pockets to keep herself grounded. Her mother discovers this, and then Sano in the hut. Can Ananda and Sano escape?

Good points: The best thing about this story is the creative idea. It seems to be surreal fiction about the clash of conflicting worldviews, as the sky people think earth is heaven and the earthbound think the sky is heaven. Neither can answer the prayers of the other. The imagery is excellent. I can’t find any overt political message here (as has been popular lately), but maybe this is a vote for harmony.

Not so good points: The surrealism thing makes this pretty nebulous. There’s not much plot–it’s mostly philosophy–and the little glimpse I got through the imagery seems to be about the extent of the world-building and characterization. Ananda’s grandmother has risen skyward, and somehow this has invoked an impending war? Hm. I ended up with a lot of questions.

I’ll give it extra points for the creativity. Four stars.

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