Are you looking for some great new summer reads? My novel The Timekeepers' War has been featured in this cool Summer Book Fair, sponsored by amazing Fantasy writer Tina Glasneck. There are lots of fun books on the list. Check it out and find something new to devour while you relax at the beach!
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.
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.
This has been in the news for the last couple of weeks: giant virus comes back to life, etc. etc. But, “according to the researchers, the revival of the virus could mean there may be other threats to human or animal life hidden in the permafrost.”
So this is fucking scary. Also, totally intriguing. Any SF writers/readers that have come across this theme before? Does it make you think of possible themes in future work? I know it’s been done before. But has it been done well? And should it be done again? Let me know in the comments 🙂
I came across this quote by Gina Torres the other day and I thought it described perfectly why I love science fiction so much. Our day to day lives are ruled by social norms and conventions, even when we don’t subscribe to them personally; no one can escape being measured against cultural expectations, even if we define ourselves by our lack of conformity.
Not so in the world of science fiction and fantasy! Good SF pushes and redefines boundaries. I love a book that questions our ideas of normalcy. When reading science fiction I am disappointed when the characters/environment do not defy the confines of current “real life” social/economic/political landscapes. Science fiction becomes the perfect platform to discuss and challenge questions and ideas about gender, sexuality, race, class, spirituality, etc.
Not to say that I expect an author to challenge every convention out there all at once. But please challenge something!
But back to Torres… Can I just say that I love her? She was my inspiration for Mirielle in The Timkeepers’ War (Summer 2014); I harbour a secret fantasy that if any of my novels are ever made into a movie, some brilliant Director will cast Torres to play the feisty barmaid-cum-boxer. Mirielle will be playing a much more integral role in The Children of Bathora (Fall 2015, I hope), so stay tuned.
Any thoughts? What do you expect from a science fiction or fantasy novel? What would you like to see more of in SF&F?
What would ultra-violet and infra-red light look like if we could see it? Will the technology exist, someday, to allow us to see colours outside our normal range of perception? Not as heat signals on a screen, but to somehow translate these other wavelengths into something our brains can see as “just another colour?” Maybe, maybe not. But it is fun to think about.
There seems to be a lot in the news lately about colour. Or maybe it just seems that way to me because I’m interested in it. As an artist as well as a writer, colour is always on my mind. I am in constant search for the “perfect” colour combination to suit a particular idea, or emotion, or imagined scene. I fuss over descriptions of colour in my writing, trying to balance brevity of language with richness of image. I sometimes find myself in a battle against purple prose as I try in vain to define the indefinable.
To me, colour has always seemed a very individual experience. How do we know that one person sees colour in the same way as another? Even our ability to see colour varies, from the hyper-sensitive to the colour-blind and, one assumes, everything in between. Other animals view colours differently from humans, some on upper and lower ends of the colour spectrum beyond human capabilities. How would they describe these invisible colours to us? How do you describe the green to someone who has never seen it? How would you describe a colour that is not visible to us now, but which may be in the future?
One of the many things I love about science/speculative fiction is that it allows us to push the boundaries of what is real into what could be. The only limitations on what you write is your own imagination, your own skill as a wordsmith. This is at once intimidating and liberating. Colour can be a great inspiration, and a great starting point for a number of writing exercises. Try the following:
1) Your character has an ocular implant that allows her to see ultra-violet light. Describe what she sees looking at sunshine reflected on the surface of a lake.
2) Describe the summer sky without using the word “blue”
3) Many animals can see infra-red light. Describe what a snake sees as she is hunting a mouse.
Hello out there, if anyone is still reading.
I apologize for how negligent I have been with my blog updates; I’ve had a lot going on. Actually a lot. I’m not just making that up.
But in the mean time, magic has happened and I’m super excited to announce that I am going to be published! I am looking at a June/July release date… so start saving those pennies! I hope to have links up soon for e-book and paperback purchases. I am looking for sci-fi reviewers to take a look, so if you’re interested, please message me and I’ll hook you up with a review copy. I plan to write a retrospective on how this came about, for those who have been following since the beginning… I just need a moment to collect my thoughts. Please leave any questions/comments below and I will try to address them in my next post!
I can’t even remember why I bought this book in the first place. Werewolves are not really my thing. Well, they might be my thing if the YA paranormal romance genre hadn’t had them declawed and neutered since the literary apocalypse that is Twilight. I’ve never read Stephanie Meyer’s “work,” or seen any of the glittering tween-porn it spawned. But I think it’s safe to say that Twilight ruined everything, forever. I steadfastly refused to be swayed on this point. Suck it.
Reading the book jacket and any plot summaries I’ve found places Bitten firmly in the paranormal romance camp. Why did I buy it? Was I drunk? Probably. I have no idea. Maybe it was the “erotically charged thriller” tagline that got me, at least I knew it wasn’t going to be YA. But whatever my reasoning at the time, I did buy it. And then I forgot about it. And then I found it, thought WTF is this?!? and read it.
And holy shit.
I might be in love with Kelley Armstrong. Like in the kind of way that might compel me to move to Ontario, stalk her, and try to suck her brain juice out with a green swirly straw. Not really, though. If that ever happens, it wasn’t me.
Now, that’s not to say that Bitten is without flaws. I found it really slow to start, for one. I felt no real connection to the first few casualties of werewolf on werewolf violence—though I felt I was supposed to. I found the sex scenes boring and mostly unnecessary (Are sex scenes ever necessary? Maybe not. But they don’t have to be boring). There was a little too much focus on Changing just to play tag in the forest—I get it, wolves are fun and playful sometimes; time to move on. And Sometimes I wanted to smack our heroine upside the head.
I think the idea of The Pack knowing everything there is to know about all the mutts (lone werewolves) in the whole world is ridiculous. There are like six of them in the Pack. They’d be lucky to be able to control their territory in New York (face it, they did a shitty job of controlling mutts in their own town). And I don’t believe for one second that Elena would be the only female werewolf in existence. Surely if she were such a coveted prize, werewolves would be biting women left right and centre for a chance at their own furry fuckmate. Let’s get real.
But! There was so much good and refreshing about this book that I’m willing to overlook all that other stuff. And I don’t do this lightly, believe me. First of all, Kelley Armstrong is Canadian and she doesn’t pretend that she’s not. A good chunk of the novel happens in Toronto, she references Vancouver, the Robert Pickton murders, the Separatist movement. And she does it without tooting her little “Oh! Canada” horn. Second, Elena Michaels is the best female narrator I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a long time. She’s all hard edges and no fluff. She doesn’t just play at being tough, she’s a cold mother-fucker. She likes sex and doesn’t apologize for it, and it’s never implied that she should apologize for it (why is this so fucking rare?!?) She screws up, but in believable ways that are consistent with what we know of her character. She fights those animal urges for violence and loses. Next to Clay, Elena is the most violent and impulsive member of the Pack. She’s refreshing. Not always likeable, but refreshing.
Violence in a werewolf story should be mandatory. No one wants to read about werewolves as domesticated pets. And by that I mean, I don’t want to. A good werewolf story needs a certain amount of blood and gore. Sex is optional. Blood and gore is not. I mean, what’s the fun in being a werewolf if you don’t get to disembowel the occasional person? Don’t lie. If you were a werewolf, it’s the first thing you’d try. Okay, after you ate the neighbours Chihuahuas. Maybe. Why gloss over the good stuff just to become another bodice ripper?
I know, I know. It’s called paranormal romance for a reason. But why is that the only place to find vampires and werewolves these days? Who turned these once terrifying monsters into Valentine’s day fodder? Everyone has sex (eventually, I hope). Reading about it is never as fun as actually doing it, so what’s the point? I refuse to believe that there are that many women out there sitting at home not getting any. If you are, stop it. There’s no reason for your suffering. Then maybe we can take back the monsters for the horror genre. We miss them here on the other side.
Now, we’ve all imagined getting to rip the throats out of our enemies and chew on their spleen. I’m sure we’ve all imagined it. Of course you have. I’m not just some kind of freak. This is the animal impulse that intrigues me, not sex. Our capacity for violence is what connects us to and separates us from other animals, and Armstrong does a fabulous job of exploring these ideas. Both thematically and in its plot, Bitten is a far more complex read that I ever would have guessed, even if we have to forgive a few flaws to see it. I personally felt that there was a little too much emphasis placed on the romantic sub plot, particularly because the main plot was more than strong enough on its own. However, the complexity of this main plot is enough to elevate the novel to true Speculative Fiction from the dregs of the appalling sub-genric slime that is paranormal romance. A rare feat, indeed. That’s some sticky shit.
I’m giving Undead Reckoning, a debut novel from Canadian author Mike Slabon, 2.5 out of 5 stars. This rating is based on Goodreads’ rating system with 2 meaning “it was ok” and 3 meaning “I liked it!”. Undead Reckoning is a difficult novel to categorize, falling somewhere in between SF and Horror and genre parody of the two, but I can safely say that it’s not a genre I typically read. I’ll try not to let that colour my review too much, though, I promise! Undead Reckoning was better than just okay, and there are parts of it that I really liked which is why I’m sticking with 2.5. But I felt the really good parts were dragged down a bit by areas that could have used a little tighter editing. That being said, Slabon shows definite potential as a developing writer and I will look forward to reading his work in the future.
I should clarify that by “tighter editing” I do not mean proof-reading. I was actually impressed by how few minor punctuation/typo style errors I found in the text. This is a huge challenge for indie press writers who often must rely on beta-readers to catch typographical errors, rather than professional editors (whose services are extremely expensive). I’m referring, rather, to content editing for pacing, clarity, and balance. I’m also going to question a couple of Slabon’s stylistic choices, which could have been used to greater effect with a couple of tweaks.
Tangent/ This review will probably be long. I apologize in advance for that. But I believe that new writers, especially independent writers, need and deserve precise and meaningful feedback in order to hone their craft. As a writer myself, I know how hard it is to come by honest constructive criticism and I hope that some of what I have to say will be helpful to Slabon and any other writers who may be reading. /end tangent.
Okay, let’s begin.
Slabon essentially has two different novels competing against one another in Undead Reckoning, and I feel that each would have been served better had they been given their own space. On one hand, Undead Reckoning is a kind of horror spoof. It’s a parody of the zombie genre, almost a parody of a parody it gets so goofy at times. Which is fine, if that is what it is. And I thought it was, at first. However, the hack and slash zombie slaying is used as a trope to move the subplots along, rather than being the meat of the novel. The subplots themselves are so bizarre and seemingly disconnected that blowing up zombies appears to be the only unifying theme (NOTE: the subplots are one area that could have been aggressively pared down without losing anything of the main plot, but more on this later). The effect is actually quite disorienting at first, and it took me well over 100 pages to get a handle on what was going on.
This is when I began to realize that there was something more to Undead Reckoning than the simple spoof I thought I was reading. There are aspects of the novel which move outside the necessarily simple landscape of a zombie parody and into more serious speculative fiction. The main plot of Undead Reckoning is layered with complexity, and Slabon ultimately does an impressive job of tying his subplots together into a cohesive whole by the end of the novel. But I almost felt that he was afraid to give his main plot, the spec fic novel, the attention and seriousness it deserved. In the end, the underlying parody novel, acted as a defence mechanism to deflect from Slabon’s “real” writing—I actually think Slabon is a better writer than he is giving himself credit for, and the dual-genre does him a disservice in his debut novel.
When we first meet our hero, NFL superstar Eddie Griffin, we land smack-dab in the aftermath of a zombie apocalypse. Griffin is coming to terms with the new world he’s living in as he helps Lieutenant Jim Shrike with a top secret mission investigating Undead activity at a nearby abandoned military base. We jump right into the action with limbs flying and brains exploding in typical zombie annihilating style. Fight scenes are interrupted by the obligatory wise-cracks and expletives, but otherwise make up the majority of the first hundred pages. This brings us to the issue of pacing.
Nothing is worse than reading a novel where nothing happens. It’s boring. I think everyone will agree with me there. So a novel that is full of non-stop action should be super awesome, right? Well, not necessarily. For non-stop action to equal good pacing, a couple of things need to happen. For one, “telling” must be balanced with “showing”. Too much telling, and the action reads more like stage directions in a screenplay than a paragraph (or chapter) in a novel.
Player A enters on right, weapon drawn. Player B turns at the sound and shouts in surprise. Player A shoots Player B between the eyes and exits stage slowly. Curtains drop.
Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Reading these initial action scenes, and some subsequent ones, was a little like grinding MOBs. Or worse, it was like reading about grinding MOBs—I didn’t even get to level up or loot anything. And with too much “telling” there is little opportunity for the reader to visualize the world and the action for him/herself. Other than knowing that Eddie Griffin was a big guy who used to play football, I had little idea what he looked like. Same with Jim Shrike. This isn’t too much of an issue for secondary characters, but main characters and setting should be clearly defined as soon as possible (I’d say first 20 pages). Putting this off disconnects the reader from the text, and limits empathy for the characters.
So action is great, but too much action is problematic for a couple of reasons: 1) The “big picture” plot gets lost in the grind, and 2) The lack of “showing” limits character development and world building. For example: For the first seventy pages or so, I was picturing Eddie Griffin as a thick, ruddy skinned white boy with a buzz cut and Jim Shrike as a lean, muscular black man who didn’t smile a lot. By the time I realized that Eddie was black and Jim was actually green—my first WTF moment—it was too late. My original pictures stuck with me, and I had to keep reminding myself of what they actually looked like as I read. Which is really too bad, because minority groups are severely under-represented in SF literature.
Tangent/ I think it’s great that Eddie Griffin is a young black man. But I think that it’s especially important to let the reader know that he’s black, specifically because there are so few non-white protagonists in the world of SF and Horror. It’s easy enough to do without rubbing it in the readers’ face. In the first couple of pages, a single sentence such as “My dark skin did little to protect me from the harsh rays of the sun” for example, could have clued us in without being too obvious (the fact that Eddie is a football player wasn’t enough for me—I thought there was a pretty even mix of black/white football players, but I know nothing about football). I know some will argue that the colour of his skin shouldn’t matter, but I disagree. I think it’s important that literary characters are representative of the world we live in: there should be many races, religions, genders and sexualities, and we shouldn’t shy away from defining them as such. Otherwise the tendency is just to assume that all characters are white, heterosexual men because for so long, that’s the way it has been. I had the same problem in my own novel, with identifying my main character as female. I left her gender ambiguous on purpose, but found that too many people were confused when I did finally describe her as “her”. I later ended up identifying her as female early on and then emphasizing her androgyny after that, which was better received. /end tangent.
Another thing that I found detracted from the main plot was that there were too many subplots. Each chapter seemed to have a new villain or conflict which, once resolved, didn’t carry over into the next scene. While some subplots did end up tying in to the main plot in the end, it was impossible to differentiate between the two. Slabon gets extra points for creativity, though. There are some gems hiding in the confusion, lots of good ideas that could have been great if they were working on their own (Juan the spider demon could have been the villain of a Christopher Moore-esqe comdey-horror novel) but just ended up competing with one another for attention. Kind of like a mini-version of the genre competition I mentioned earlier.
This brings us to the two stylistic choices that I felt could have been used differently. One: footnotes. Footnotes are largely unnecessary, and interrupt the flow of the narrative. Unless you’re Terry Pratchett, in which case you have elevated the footnote to an art form in and of itself–rife with sly humour, supplemental story lines, and lessons in magic and/or physics. For the rest of us, 95% of material that could be footnoted could also be worked into the text or simply left up to the reader to figure out. The only exception to this rule would be for language translation if a word or phrase from another language is used without enough context to be understood on its own. Anagrams can be spelled out in full, and then abbreviated later if they’re going to be recurrent in the novel. For example, military anagrams like CFB (Canadian Forces Base) or LAV (Light Armoured Vehicle). Slang, military or otherwise, should only be defined by the context that it is used in not by footnote. I just finished reading Anthony Burgess’ Clockwork Orange, and I never needed to use the glossary once. Language is like that, we’re pretty good at filling in the blanks. Not only slang, but any words that were made up and only exist in the world of your novel should be defined by context or dialogue, not footnotes. Real words should never be footnoted. If you’ve chosen a word that is so obscure you doubt your reader will know it, use a different word. If it’s necessary, have another character be confused by it so that you can explain it in dialogue. Example: thanatology. If your reader doesn’t know what C-4 is, that’s his problem. Let him google that shit and give the rest of us some credit!
Stylistic Choice Two: Sound effects. Less is more when it comes to BANG! SMACK! RATTATATAT! and/or KABOOM! This isn’t a comic book. Again, this is just my opinion. I can see how the onomatopoeia lends itself to the parody genre, but I also preferred the non-parodical stuff, so that’s just my take.
Okay, I hope you’ve stuck with my ramblings this far, because now I’d like to talk about what I really liked about this novel. There are three sections of Undead Reckoning that really stood out to me. The first is in Keek’s lair. Slabon does a great job of describing the underground lair and entrance to Nabisusha. The novel started to feel alive to me at this point. And it is because of this scene that I feel justified in wishing there were more descriptions of characters and settings earlier in the book. Once I realized that Slabon had all this great imagery up his sleeve, I felt extra ripped off when I didn’t get it. The next scene that really stands out is in the Anomalies Amok fantasy that Eddie gets trapped in. Slabon shows real potential for world building here, and I’m curious to see what he would do with a high fantasy novel. Not only this, but the characterization of the AA players trapped in this fantasy are better developed, and the fight scenes better realized than anywhere else in the novel up to this point. Finally, the flashback scene explaining the fate of the Masters and Custodians—much high fantasy and speculative fiction potential is demonstrated in this scene. Again, Slabon is a much better writer than he gives himself credit for, or than he seems to, by hiding behind the goofier aspects of this novel. The complexity of the final plot actually stunned me, and I really wished that this main plot line had been more heavily invested in throughout the novel.
Really, Undead Reckoning had all the elements of a strong SF novel, but they were obscured by the sillier subplots and could have been enhanced by aggressive editing. Slabon could easily have written a spoof novel akin to Night of the Living Dead, a couple of Christopher Moore style comedy/horror novels, and have an SF trilogy started with the material that is in this book. It’s a little much for one novel to bear, but there’s no denying Slabon’s potential as an up and coming writer. I’d like to see him move with confidence into speculative fiction. Or parody, for that matter. But I think we’ll find that his strengths lie in those areas he was reluctant to meet head on in his debut novel—complex plots, intriguing characters, and fascinating worlds—and it’s my opinion that those strengths will be best realized in an SF or fantasy series. Whatever he chooses to do, though, I’ll be reading.
PS This novel and future novels need more ladies! Undead Reckoning was a serious sausage fest. I realize that half the world has been zombified, but shouldn’t half the survivors still be women? Especially with the reveal at the end of the novel about why some people turned and some didn’t. I doubt Slabon intended to make a comment about how fulfilling women’s lives are, and how many of us are essentially “dead already”. But that’s the conclusion I was forced to draw! I want to see chicks with machine guns riding on dire-wolves in the follow up. Make it happen!
A Discovery of Witches was a pleasant surprise for me. I didn’t really know what to expect, coming into it, which is probably a good thing. I hate having a book built up in my mind before I start, and the inevitable disappointment after imagining that it will be different than it is. Deborah Harkness’ debut novel came up as a book recommendation based on other books I’ve read. I gave the blurb a cursory glance, decided it had all the makings for a nice fluffy read next time my brain was too tired for “real” books, and tossed it into my virtual shopping cart. “Magic Realism” is a kind of cotton candy genre for me. They are light and sweet and disappear too quickly. And when I’m finished I have that twinge of guilt that I shouldn’t have gone there, and I worry about rotting some important bits of my head.
But A Discovery of Witches did not end up being the fluffy read I imagined it to be. Harkness has built a surprisingly complex world in which three supernatural species—witches, daemons, and vampires—coexist, mostly unnoticed, with humans. She works a vast amount of history, science, and religion into this world and blends the lines between them quite seamlessly. A large portion of the novel is set in Oxford, particularly the Bodleian Library, where an enchanted text from the 1500’s finds its way into the hands of our heroine—Dr. Diana Bishop is a Scientific Historian—as she is researching her latest paper on alchemical poetry. Bishop, though she is a witch by birth, has long since denied her magical heritage and wants nothing to do with the shimmering book before her. She promptly sends it back to the stacks, and tries to forget about it. Which, of course, is never going to work. Her denial of the book sends a shockwave into the supernatural community, and suddenly Diana Bishop is thrust into the very world she has been avoiding for her entire life.
Now I didn’t go to school anywhere near as awesome as Oxford, but Harkness had me yearning for those early years of university. Reading it makes me reconsider my decision not to pursue a career in education. Oddly, the most “magical” aspects of this book for me were Harkness’ simple descriptions of that great, historical campus and the vast libraries, coffee shops, and academic fuss-budgets that are at the heart of any college or university.
Even better, is the fact that Harkness has peppered the text with beautiful little excerpts of poetry from some of my favourite writers—and some I’m not familiar with—which she almost seems to have written the text around. If you are in any way a lit geek, this book holds more than a few thrills. Harkness also uses folklore and mythology to her advantage. Myth enriches her story when she decides to embrace it, but she’s not afraid to deconstruct it intelligently when it doesn’t suit her purpose.
My only complaint about A Discovery of Witches is that it leans a little more heavily on the romantic subplots than runs to my taste. The star-crossed lovers theme has never been my thing. When the lovers in question are a witch and a vampire, my cheese-o-meter starts flashing. Their love, however idealistic and sickeningly sweet it is, is actually integral to the main plot, though. And so I will forgive it. But please, Harkness, if you’re going to make me sit through chapter after chapter of goo-goo eyes and endless descriptions of what vampire breath smells like (if it’s not blood, I’m not interested) you’d better make with the fucky-fucky. Seriously. If Diana and Matthew don’t have wild monkey sex in the first three chapters of the sequel I’m going to be writing a strongly worded letter.
Okay, that’s not my only complaint. The book moves a little too slowly at times. Diana seems to spend an inordinate amount of time denying the fact that she is a witch given the fact that she has been shooting sparks out of her fingers, reading people minds, and calling on torrents of wind and water every time she has an emotional breakdown. It felt a little bit like Diana’s acceptance of her situation was being dragged out so that the rest of the plot could catch up.
Also, Matthew is annoying. And his bleeding heart routine kinda made me want to stake him. In real life people lose friends, lovers, children, family, to any number of things: war, illness, car accidents, vengeful lovers, wild animal attacks, whatever. Death happens. For the most part, we expect a person to move on from loss within a reasonable amount of time. Of course you won’t forget the people you love, but if you lose your partner in your twenties and are still emotionally crippled by the loss when you’re eighty, there’s probably something wrong with you. Now, imagine you’re a two thousand year old vampire. Imagine that you lost your wife and child to some epidemic in the year 535BC. Shitty, right? Sure. But I’m pretty sure you’ve gotten over it by the time 2012 rolls around. Just sayin’.
Anyways, I prefer my vampires to be bloodthirsty assholes, I guess. And although Matthew spends a decent amount of time being an asshole it’s usually because he’s trying to hide his tender soul from the rest of the world. It’s all a little too cutesy.
All in all, I’m giving A Discovery of Witches 3 stars. The world building on its own deserves at least 4.5, but the characters fall a little flat for me. Or the dynamic between the two MC’s did. I realize that a lot of this has to do with personal expectations and tastes, so I’m not going to weigh characterization as heavily as I would if the plot and setting had been mediocre. I’m going to give Harkness the benefit of the doubt and assume Diana and Matthew’s relationship will gain a little more depth in the next book. Or at least hope their hormones get as much play time as their hearts did in book one.