SF Book Review: The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Book One of The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Broken Kingdoms, Book Two in The Inheritance Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin
The Kingdom of Gods, Book Three in The Inheritance Trilogy, by N.K Jemisin

It has been a long time since I’ve written a book review here, so I’m going to try to kill three birds with one stone. That is, if you believe you can kill something by just loving it too much… I hope Jemisin is resilient, because there is going to be a lot of love coming her way.

I cannot say enough good things about N.K Jemisin’s Inheritance Trilogy. This isn’t going to be a proper, detailed review because I simply read them all in one great insatiably hungry sitting. Now, I can’t remember all of the details that made me love these books; all that remains is the hazy afterglow of book-lust in all its warm and fuzzy glory. One of the hazards of binge reading, I suppose.

Jemisin is a recent discovery for me. I stumbled upon a review of The Broken Kingdoms by the Little Red Reviewer, and in an uncharacteristic act of blind faith, immediately bought the entire Inheritance Trilogy as well as the first two books in the Dreamblood trilogy. What can I say. I’m a sucker for well written reviews and pretty book covers.

Jemisin did not disappoint. Not only did she not disappoint, she blew every expectation that I had out of the water. She is everything that a great science/speculative fiction or fantasy writer should be, in my opinion. She is everything that I hope to be, some day, as a writer. I thought I was getting close, but Jemisin has shown me exactly how far I can still push myself. And I love her for it.

I’m not going to tell you the plotline of these books. You can look that up easily enough. What I am going to tell you is that Jemisin does three things marvellously well, and I believe these three things are essential to good, progressive SF&F lit.

1) Women: Jemisin writes female main characters who are main characters that happen to be female. She does not do stereotypes. She does not do caricatures. She writes full, well-rounded, interesting female characters who are as tough and vulnerable as they need to be. They are human, even when they are gods. This is also true for her male characters, although I would argue this is less of an anomaly in today’s fiction. Jemisin creates balance and believability with her characters without resorting to age old tropes and conventions.

2) Gender and Sexuality: I will never understand why, when a writer creates a completely original and unique world, they insist on conforming to heteronormative social constructs. Jemisin is not afraid to push the boundaries of gender and sexuality in her writing, she uses ambiguity to great effect, creating complexity and tension in her characters’ relationships that would not exist otherwise. And I’m not talking about trendy lesbians, either. She writes male characters who slip with ease from raw masculinity into sumptuous femininity. She writes about love between men, and the complications of having both male and female lovers. She deals with power and dominance in ways that rise above gender. And it’s hot. I dare you to pick up The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms and tell me otherwise.

3) Race: Like issues of gender and sexuality, race is another oft overlooked aspect in SF&F literature. The genre is notoriously whitewashed; the most popular SF writers tend to be white men who write about white men. This is true in all literature, but seems to be a particularly stubborn reality in SF. As more and more female writers and/or writers of colour are taking off in literary fiction, SF seems stuck in the mud. But this is the genre that should be the most able to accommodate writers and characters of all backgrounds. There are literally NO RULES when you’re writing SF. You get to make it all up, top to bottom. Why the hell do we insist on continuing to read and write predominantly white characters? Jemisin does not feel compelled to follow this formula, obviously. And she shows exactly how easy it is to make the shift. I honestly didn’t really think much about the fact that she created a world with many races (which were not sullied by “real world” stereotyping/exoticising) as I was reading. It was after I had finished that I thought, “Holy shit, that was refreshing!” Now that she has shown me how it can be done, she’s given me new goals for diversity in my own writing.

So regardless of where your tastes lie as a science fiction or fantasy reader, I urge you to pick up N.K. Jemisin the next time you’re looking for a fresh new voice. I honestly believe there is something for everyone in The Inheritance Trilogy and Jemisin has something to teach us all, as readers and writers, about how easy and effective it is to push those boundaries. I truly hope she will help to usher in a new age of SF fandom now that she has thrown open the door for those of us trying to follow in her footsteps.

SF Review: The Forever War by Joe Haledeman.

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman
The Forever War by Joe Haldeman


4/5 Stars

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman is a short but sweet military sci-fi masterpiece. What makes it a masterpiece, of course, is that it’s not really about military sci-fi. It’s about people. It’s about war and the devastation and alienation suffered by those who are fighting, compared to the world they leave behind. It is about the futility of warfare on a cosmic scale (and, therefore, on a more local one). It is about how we live to die, and how we can still find room for aliveness. Does that make any sense?

Is it the best military sci-fi ever written? How the hell do I know? I can only read so many books. I think a lot of people are touting it as such without having read nearly enough (which would be all) other contenders. In my experience, it’s a solid front-runner. But there are hundreds of thousands of books out there that I haven’t read, and will never read. And which many people will never read. Maybe one of these unknowns, or lesser-knowns, should really claim that “best ever” title.

There are enough reviews out there to give you a decent idea of the plot of Forever War. I’m not into plot summary. But I did enjoy this book. Almost every aspect of it. Even the anachronistic horror surrounding homosexuality, because at least Haldeman tried. He was able to envision a time in which homosexuality was normalized. And although his protagonist, born in the 1970’s, never outgrows the prejudices of his era, those born afterwards see heterosexuality as the deviant behavior and turn “modern” ideas on their heads. In fact, if the book hadn’t ended with so many of the homosexual characters choosing to be brainwashed into becoming heterosexual at the end (seemed like Haldeman’s way of making these characters “likable” as opposed to “repulsive”), I would have given The Forever War a five star rating.

But I love Haldeman’s vision of war in space and the conundrums which arise with light-speed travel. The notion of a Forever War is frighteningly realistic (in my admittedly unscientific mind) in its futility. Never have I read a book which made me question human nature’s apparent inclination towards violence so thoroughly. And Halderman’s solution to our humanity is equally terrifying. The Forever War is definitely worth a read. And it will be a quick one. I promise!

SF Book Review: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

2/5 Stars

 

Let me say first that my rating of Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World is through an “enjoyment as reader” lens, rather than a comment on its historical and cultural value. There is no doubt that Brave New World is a hugely influential and important piece of literature. It crosses the boundaries drawn around it by the Science Fiction genre and has been accepted as a classic work of English Literature. And there are a lot of valid reasons for this to have happened.

I thoroughly enjoyed the first third of the book—the broken and disjointed viewpoints worked to build a comprehensive setting and provided us with all the background we needed without coming across as an info dump (which it certainly was). Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, the readability does not. The characters reveal themselves to be little more than shallow “place holders” for Huxley’s vision. Brave New World is an allegory, sure. But it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these puppets as they are pulled from one predictable scene to the next. Part of their banality is obviously intentional, Huxley is emphasising the lack of individuality and independent thought in his dystopian London. By this rationale, we would expect something more from John Savage. But he too is a puppet. A puppet inexplicably reciting Shakespeare with no linguistic or socio-cultural reference for what it actually means.

As we switch perspectives from Bernard Marx to John Savage, my compassion for the characters actual wanes further. Bernard is a flawed, though, oddly sympathetic character. Of all of the characters I actually felt I understood him, even if he was a cad. Lenina is vapid and pointless. Helmholz may have been interesting, but we’ll never know as he never does more than lurk at the periphery of the story. Savage is all misplaced teenage angst and over-the-top romanticism, but he translates all of his experiences through the words of Shakespeare so that I got the feeling he wasn’t really present in his own story, merely acting out a role in a play he didn’t understand. The only time John Savage interested me was during his debate with Mustapha Mond, when Huxley puts his vision to the test.

Huxley’s take interest in eugenics is surely a response to the emergence of Nazism, Fascism, and Stalinism. The twist on pronatalism speaks to the 1930’s population concerns regarding low fertility rates during the depression era. The two combined, and taken to extremes, are in essence a recipe for great dystopian SF. Had the narrative kept up with the ideas, this would be a fabulously good read. But the problem with readability was, for me, compounded by the Huxley’s problematic treatment of race, class, gender, and sexuality. This isn’t an undergrad paper, so I’m not going to go into ridiculous detail, but I will highlight some of the issues I had with this novel:

On Gender: Ya, I know. It was written in the 1930’s and I really shouldn’t expect anything more. But all of the female characters in this book are completely insipid. All of the characters who challenge ideas in this Brave New World are male. Bernard, Helmholz, Savage, and Mond. That is it. The only possible exception to this is Lenina’s tendency to “fall in love,” first with Henry Foster and later with John Savage. Linda challenges some ideas, but not by anything that she does, merely by the fact that she gets fat and old and therefore ugly. Not exactly screaming examples of female agency.

On Sexuality:In this world of required promiscuity and universal sterility, there is not an inkling of anything other than heteronormative relationships. Even when the goal of sex is just “fun” there is no room for bi-sexual or homosexual attraction, except maybe by accident during a compulsory orgy. Again, ya, I know. Written in the 1930’s. But it’s not like homosexuality was unheard of. In some circles it was even recognized and accepted (albeit in a limited sort of way). Huxley’s hetero world just comes across as unimaginative at best and cowardly at worst.

On Class: There’s a lot going on in Brave New World if you are interested in class issues. Huxley’s dystopia abides by a rigid, genetically engineered and enforced, caste hierarchy of Alphas, Betas, Deltas, and Epsilons. In many ways, Brave New World is a scathing commentary on American-style capitalism; consumption is the name of the game. However, in Huxley’s world of supply and demand, there are those who demand and those who supply. Alpha’s and Beta’s go about their lives doing the “important” work in sciences (mind you, they aren’t actually allowed to think for themselves) and they happily spend their money on stuff, they are the demand. The lower castes exist solely to supply the labour to fulfill these demands. They are genetically engineered to not want or expect anything more than their station requires of them. And they are happier for it. The unspoken sentiment seems to be that if poor/uneducated people would accept their positions and quit trying to rise above their stations, they too could be happy. [This flies in the face of the capitalist fantasy of the “self-made man,” and seems contradictory to Huxley’s other points against the ideology… colour me confused.] Furthermore, the idea that castes are somehow naturally ordered based on intelligence irks me. Granted, there is some social conditioning involved to keep the Deltas and Epsilons content, but the suggestion appears to be that all you need to do to create a happy slave caste is kill a few brain-cells in the embryo stage.

On Race: Ahhh, racism. This was the biggest issue for me. Racist imagery occurs repeatedly throughout this text and it repeatedly grated on my nerves. A pair of Delta-Minus twins are described as “small, black, and hideous,” (Pg. 55) they look at Bernard with “bestial derision,” (Pg. 56). Later, another group is described as “almost noseless black brachycephalic Deltas “ (Pg. 138), or another as “dark dolichocephalic male twins…[with faces like]a thin, beaked bird-mask” (Pg. 183). Now, I should not that there are Deltas and Epsilons that are described as sandy and red-haired, but they are never dwelt upon with such horror as the “dark” ones. Also, it is only the “dark” workers who are described in animalistic language (beastial, beaked). And none of the Alphas or Betas are ever described as dark; they are all Caucasian variants.

Since the caste structures are achieved through eugenics there are two possible scenarios which would account for this: a) dark-skinned embryos are purposefully chosen for the Delta, Epsilon and Gamma castes and not for Alpha and Beta, or b) stunting the development of an embryo somehow creates dark-skinned outcomes. Neither of these possibilities makes me feel any better about what Huxley is trying to say.

Further racist images include the Indians on the reservation, where the once-fair Linda is polluted by her sexual relationships with the dark skinned “savages.” John Savage, Linda’s blonde haired fair-skinned son, appears to be instinctually repulsed by this. When he comes upon Linda and her lover Popé, John describes the scene thusly: “…white Linda and Popé almost black beside her…[a] dark hand on her breast, and one of the plaits of his long hair lying across her throat, like a black snake trying to strangle her,” (Pg. 114). He is so revolted by this that he attempts to kill his mother’s lover.

Later, there is the “feely” that Lenina takes John Savage to. The film is about a love affair between “a gigantic Negro and a golden-haired young brachycephalic Beta-Plus female,” (Pg. 146). The black man suffers a blow to the head and develops an unnatural and uncivilized attraction to the blonde woman, kidnaps and rapes her, before she is saved by “three handsome Aphas” (Pg. 147). Tellingly, the gigantic black man is not given a caste, signifying that even before his injury he is outside of civilized society.

Likely there are more examples, but I’ll leave that up to the scholars…

Now, I’m not going to say they no one should read Brave New World because it’s racist/classist/sexist. Despite these shortcomings, Huxley’s dystopic vision is interesting. Indeed, because it’s dystopic once could argue that Huxley is not advocating racist/classist/sexist views, but speaking against them (I would argue that you are wrong, but it might be fun anyways).

These issues did, however, disrupt my enjoyment of the novel for reading’s sake. And that is what I have based my review on. I have never studied Brave New World in an academic setting. I would be interested to hear from any of you who have, who may be able to enlighten me on any points that I have missed or misinterpreted. I am essentially arguing in a vacuum here. But for now, I’m going to go with a whopping two stars. Brave New World, “It was okay.”

Fantasy Review: The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

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2.5/5 Stars

So I finally read The Name of the Wind after it had been sitting on my bookshelf for over a year. Actually, I’d picked it up, tried to get through the Prologue, and given up more than once. There was just something about that melodramatic, purple-prose-y introduction that turned me off. But eventually, a recommendation from my sister got me to power through and give it an honest go.

Now, I don’t want anyone to get all up in arms about this being a two star review; it’s probably actually a 2.5 as it was better than okay and I really did like the story. But this is another book that, for my tastes, could have used a heavy-handed editor. There is no doubt in my mind that Rothfuss is a talented writer. He has built an intriguing world, the mechanics of magic are well thought out, and his prose has moments of stunning clarity and true beauty in equal measures. But much of what I liked about this book was drown out by a lot of over-written, repetitive metaphors and a tendency to belabour ideas until I stopped caring about them.

I think The Name of the Wind is a five star book that is being smothered by itself. In my opinion, Rothfuss would not have needed to add anything to gain a five star review from me; it’s in there. He just needed to trim the fat a little more closely—okay, a lot more closely—for it to be visible. And I also recognize that this style of writing is exactly what some people love, and I do understand why so many people have given it 4-5 stars. I get bored reading Tolkien, too. So shoot me.

My biggest issue with the prose is that much of the imagery just doesn’t make sense. For example “The man had true-red hair, red as flame.” (Pg. 1, and elsewhere). Now, I don’t know about you, but I have pretty much never seen a red flame. A candle-flame is nearly white, with soft yellow and orange edges. Flame in a fireplace is mostly yellow and orange as well, with some white and blue. I’ve even seen green flame; try lighting a Cheeto on fire. But I’ve never seen a red flame. Am I crazy? Is there some magical red fire that I don’t know about? Please tell me I’m not the only one! And the image is used constantly throughout the text. This might seem like nit-picking. If it was the only image that seemed off to me, I’d probably let it slide. But The Name of the Wind is rife with them.

And the images that do make sense are often followed immediately by other, less ideal images. “[The cuts] gaped redly against the innkeeper’s fair skin, as if he had been slashed with a barber’s razor or a piece of broken glass.” (Pg. 40) Do we really need both? The image of broken glass, to me, is the more effective one. It evokes a violent, ragged wound. The barber’s razor would leave comparatively cleaner, more sanitary looking cut. Either way, the two images are at odds with one another. Which is it?

Similarly, “Kote’s voice cut like a saw through bone…He spoke so softly that Chronicler had to hold his breath to hear” (Pg. 45). I find these images contradictory. It’s distracting to have one thing described in multiple, contradictory ways. These two examples are not the worst, they are just the ones I happened across on a brief scan of the first few pages. I actually wish I’d made note of the imagery I liked and the imagery that didn’t work so that I could articulate this issue more clearly. But I didn’t. And I’m not going to re-read the thing just to prove a point. Other reviewers have gone to the trouble already, I’m sure.

Other things that bugged me: too many types of currency (can we at least have an index to reference, please?), unnecessary changes to days of the week (again, please proved a reference, because the names themselves are arbitrary and confusing), names of languages do not necessarily match their place of origin (again, this would be fine if there was an index, but there’s not and it’s confusing), the constant use of names in conversation (when two people are talking to each other, they don’t usually start every sentence with the other’s name… that’s just weird), the story within a story within a story format (sometimes it works great and I like the effort and detail Rothfuss has put into the mythology, but the main Chronicler/Kvothe bookending comes across as extremely contrived), the convenient plot resolutions (there is literally no conflict that doesn’t just magically resolve itself without direct input from Kvothe)… but not enough for me to dwell on. I can forgive the convenience of the plot because I found the rest of the world satisfyingly complex. I recognize that the Arabian Nights style narrative is just not to my personal taste. The other issues on their own wouldn’t bother me that much, but together they cry out for an editor.

There is one issue that is difficult for me to get past, however. And that is how everything is “the best.” Sure, Kvothe’s a Gary Sue, but that doesn’t really irk me. It’s a common enough problem that, if the rest of the book is up to snuff, I tend to just ignore this problem. But not only is Kvothe a Gary Sue, but it’s like everything he touches is the best of the best.

The Edema Ruh (the name of which will always remind me of the terrible swelling I had during pregnancy) are Gary Sue style performers. Everything they do is described as so completely without compare that I don’t believe in them. They don’t make mistakes. They know every song and story that ever existed. They are flawless and boring.
Kvothe’s mastery of the lute and his song-writing are so heartbreakingly beautiful that he stuns everyone wherever he goes. But this doesn’t leave any room for people who don’t like the lute, maybe, or who prefer a different style of music. No. He is just amazing and everyone who hears him recognizes it instantly. And every time I read one of the songs he’s written, I am heartbroken. Heartbrokenly underwhelmed.

Similarly, Kvothe’s description of the love of his life is so over the top perfect (in Kvothe’s mind) that she is immediately disappointing when we meet her. And the problem is that what one person finds attractive may or may not jive with what another person finds attractive. We don’t all have the same taste in men/women, or music, or wine. There is no such thing as “the best,” nothing is perfect to everyone. It is self-defeating to describe anything so simplistically. These characters couldn’t live up to their own hype. No one could. And it’s not that Rothfuss isn’t up to the task, it’s that no one is. There is no perfect description of anything that will satisfy every reader. So don’t even try. Seriously.

Anyway, enough of the negatives. I want to get back to what I like about this book. Rothfuss has done a great thing in building this world. It may not be the most unique fantasy world ever created. And it doesn’t need to be. It is whole and believable. The magic works without becoming a convenient plot device (one of the few easy outs that isn’t taken advantage of, interestingly), the world mythology is rich and complex and integral to the story (this is a huge, impressive achievement), the characters are varied and interesting, the story is multifaceted and engaging. There are a lot of good things going on with this novel. Sadly, I really do feel like it’s a 5 star book hiding in a 2.5 star body.

eReaders… I’m finally joining everyone in the 21st C.

Okay. I finally did it. I’ve ordered a Kindle Paperwhite. Don’t tell me I’ve made the wrong choice; it’s too late now.

I have stubbornly avoided getting on the eBook bandwagon. I covet my moments with real books in my hands. The last thing I need in  my life is more “screen time.” I need the soft shush of pages turning, the sweet smell of ink and book-glue and paper (side note: anyone else in love with the smell of used book stores? the older books get, the better they smell). I need the feel of them in my hands to truly enjoy reading.

At least, that’s what I’ve been telling myself. Because that’s how it’s been for me for the last 30 years. Actually, I’m not sure that my owning an eReader is going to change any of that. I will always love paper books. However, I am willing to make some concessions to my ideals for the sake of three things…

1) I would like to be able to view my own books in their electronic form for the sake of proofing, editing, and plain old curiosity. Although I trust my publisher to make my upcoming novel as professional as it can be, I am venturing into the world of self-publishing for some of my novellas, short-stories, etc. and I need to be able to view them as they will be viewed by others.

2) There are so many lovely self-published and small press authors out there whom I would love to support. Many of them only publish eBooks, which is one reason I feel I need an eReader. But even those who offer paperbacks as well, I would like to be able to purchase in eBook format. Not that I wouldn’t love to have a huge library of hardcopy indie books. But eBooks make the difference between me being able to support three or four authors for the same price as one, if I limit myself to paperbacks. I want to share the love a bit 🙂

3) My wallet will (hopefully) thank me. Not only will I be able to spread my dollars around a bit more to show my Indie love, but I will hopefully be able to save some money on traditionally published books as well. There are some books that I am curious about, but just can’t bring myself to spend the money on. If the eBook is significantly cheaper, I may discover authors that I would have otherwise avoided out of uncertainty. I never hold back from buying a book that I know I love, but I’d like to take a few more risks and not feel like I’m breaking the bank.

So there you have it. My rationale… What do you think? Do you have and love your eReader? Are you a stubborn old goat, like me, who clings to paper books like the precious relics they are? Do you have an eBook that you think I might enjoy? Drop me a line, and post links in the comments. I will review sci-fi and fantasy on Cat’s Liminal Space, and others on Goodreads and Amazon.

Fiction Book Review: Sharp Objects by Gillian

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4/5 Stars

Well, Gillian Flynn has done it again. For me, at least. Sharp Objects is another gritty mystery that I didn’t see coming. I had some idea of what Flynn was capable of, having read Dark Places last year. And yet her ability to draw up a truly disturbed protagonist still surprises me. And, unlike Libby in Dark Places, Sharp Objects’s Camille is both more disturbed and more accessible. I actually liked her.

Now, don’t get me wrong. When I read Dark Places I actually liked that I didn’t like Libby. I liked that there wasn’t a single redeeming character in the entire novel. It’s refreshing and, in my twisted brain, realistic. A world full of shitty people is far more believable to me than one full of moralistic high-roaders and do-gooders. Call me a cynic. Sharp Objects is similarly set up in that there are almost no redeeming characters. But I found myself liking Camille, as well as her boss Curry and his wife. That’s not to say that they’re any less screwed up. If anything Camille has more reason to be a degenerate underachiever than Libby did, and I appreciated her ability to empathize in spite of her own issues.

But one doesn’t pick up a Gillian Flynn novel for a quick pick me up. You don’t read her books to feel good about yourself or about life. If that’s why you read, stay the fuck away from Flynn. But if you’re in the mood for something dark, if you want to take a good hard look at the underbelly of North American life, she’s a pretty safe bet.

Flynn’s strength lies not in her novel’s settings or her world building. We never get a clear picture of the town of Wind Gap itself, though we do see the characters’ more intimate spaces—bedrooms, kitchens, living rooms. What she does well is paint a fantastic inner landscape. She carves out a piece of her characters’ brains and lays it bare. You see everything. The confidence, the pride, the confusion, the self-loathing, all the twisted little things that people sometimes think and don’t like to admit to. In fact, it amuses me to read some of the negative reviews of this book and the vitriol aimed at Flynn for her “sick” characters, their gratuitous sexuality, their perversion. The lad[ies] doth protest too much, methinks. I was never mentally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused as a child and I’ve thought and felt some pretty fucked up shit. Camille’s uncensored thoughts could easily be anyone’s. If you are repulsed by this idea, I’d like to suggest that you are in serious denial about what goes on inside your own head. It’s either that, or I’m crazy. And while I’d be okay with either explanation, I’m leaning towards the likelihood that most people are way more screwed up than they like to admit.

Flynn’s characters are nasty pieces of work. You’re not supposed to like them, or even to sympathize with them in most cases. The people of Wind Gap are no exception. The town is rife with the problems caused by small town conventions and boredom. Alcoholism, drug abuse, hidden sexual excess, and cruel gossip all rear their ugly heads. And I’ve lived in enough small towns to know that this is more than just a stereotype, whether you live in a Mid-Western town in the US, a small prairie town in Western Canada, or a remote northern community on either side of the border. Granted, not all towns will end up with a double homicide of preteen girls. But all towns harbour child abuse, substance abuse, income disparity, cliques, and worse. It could happen anywhere, and when it does, people are always surprised by what goes one behind closed doors. Flynn is not afraid to show us what goes on behind those doors, whether they be in a character’s home or in their head.

I really liked Sharp Objects. It was dark, it was gritty. It had just enough empathy to make it feel worth reading. And the story itself managed to catch me off guard, even when I thought I knew what I was getting myself into. Flynn manages to paint a very disturbing picture without, in my opinion, being gratuitous with it. And she gets bonus points for an ending that I didn’t see coming. Or rather, that I did and then allowed myself to be lead astray which is even more difficult to achieve. Rather than being disappointed in the ending, like I was with Dark Places, I felt Sharp Objects wrapped up neatly. It was satisfying, if that’s a word I can use for a book like this. It seemed appropriate.

Go ahead. Read it. I dare you.

Fiction Review: When the Devil Doesn’t Show by Christine Barber

2.5/5 Stars

15793141I won When the Devil Doesn’t Show in a Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway a few months ago. I have to say, I was pleasantly surprised. Barber writes a good crime novel. The dialogue was snappy and believable, the plot line was interesting and complicated enough to keep me and the characters guessing. The characters themselves are mostly well-developed and realistic. But in the end the novel fell a little flat for me, which prevented me from giving it a three or four star rating.

One thing that bothered me was actually the blurb on the back of the book (I won’t summarize it here, check it out wherever you like to creep books!). Granted this is more her publisher’s problem than Barber’s, but the description is inaccurate to the point of being misleading. It’s as if the blurb was written before the book was finished and Barber changed her mind mid-process. For example, there is no second house fire. The crimes are connected by a series of home invasions, the first of which ended in a house fire. Second, Montoya doesn’t make the connection to the laboratory on the Hill until very near the end of the book, when things are starting to wrap up. In fact, he’s not the one who makes the connection at all. Most of the book is spent following the path of an escaped convict and his possible cohorts.

Maybe this isn’t a big deal for some, but to me a crime novel about thugs conducting home invasions has a totally different feel than one about a cover-up at a nuclear testing facility run by the federal government. If I had purchased this book expecting the latter, I would have been sadly disappointed.

However, Barber does deliver on her publishers promise in another way. She paints a vivid and enticing picture of Santa Fe life and culture. Her characters are varied and interesting, from many walks of life. If she continues to use them in future novels they are the kind of characters that I would be interested in reading about as they evolve. I haven’t read the novel preceding When the Devil Doesn’t Show, which she mentions a couple of times. One certainly doesn’t have to know the first novel to follow this one, but I think I might seek it out just to fill in some blanks in the characters’ relationships.

While I enjoyed Barber’s setting and characterization, what I ultimately had an issue with was the plot. The initial plot, or what I thought to be the initial plot, had a lot of potential. But as the novel progressed, I felt Barber moved further and further from her intended story until it kind of became something else. It didn’t feel like a smooth transition. The more we find out about the characters’ motivations, the less the story makes sense until, in the end, the reader is left wondering what the hell actually happened to start the whole thing. The connections between the antagonists is pretty flimsy. We get a little glimpse into how they might be connected, but without understanding any of their motivations the ties are tenuous at best.

SPOILER: For example, what set off Martez to begin with? Competition between scientists can only be taken so far. Especially after the revelation that he tried to poison his co-worker and give her unborn children birth defects. This would achieve nothing in the way of scholarly competition had the plot worked and, in fact, would potentially work against him if the woman had miscarried as she likely would have continued working there. Doesn’t make sense. And as for his relationship with Tyler Hoffman, are we to believe that they had a relationship before Hoffman went to jail? Did Hoffman hook up with Lupe after his prison escape or before he was incarcerated? If Hoffman and Martez had no previous relationship would Martez really be willing to enlist his help to eliminate his competition at the lab, and would Hoffman have been willing to do it?  END SPOILER This is the point at which the plot kind of loses some steam. Lack of characterization of the protagonists, combined with the cliff-hanger ending, culminated in a serious anti-climax. I felt a little let down at the end of this novel.

The pacing was great, and the plot flowed well right up to the end. Really the last chapter is the only one that I felt kind of bogged down, and part of that is because I started to realize at that point that the loose ends would never be dealt with. I also felt that we saw a bit too much of the tertiary characters. They interrupted the flow of the main narrative and often didn’t add much to the plot itself. These extra snapshots would have been better used on the antagonists, to give a more well-rounded understanding of the characters and their motivations.

I will likely pick up a novel by Christine Barber again. At least to see if my issues with this book are consistent with the rest of her work . If When the Devil Doesn’t Show is indicative of her usual writing style, I wouldn’t try more than one more. But at this point, I felt her strengths outshone her weaknesses as a writer and she deserves another chance.