Lexifabricographer

November 26, 2013

TMoRP Day 22 – Saga by Vaughan and Staples

Okay, Saga.

I’ve been putting this blog post off for days. Partly because I’ve been both busy and exhausted, but mostly because I just don’t know if I can do this thing justice.

Saga is a monthly (-ish) comic from Image Comics by Brian K. Vaughan (writer) and Fiona Staples (artist). It’s billed as an epic space opera, but the interplanetary conflicts, majestic science-fictional (and science-fantasy) concepts and larger-than-life characters are quite secondary to the romantic relationship drama of the two lead characters, Alana and Marko. She has delicate bat-shaped dragonfly wings and combat boots; he has curly ram horns and a magic sword. They are madly in love and on the run. They come from worlds that have been at war for so long that they now outsource the conflict to vassal states, such as that of one of the more colourful secondary characters, expectant-father Prince Robot IV.

As the series opens, Alana is giving birth to their (impossible) baby, a daughter named Hazel. Hazel narrates the story, presumably from sometime far in the future. Virtually everyone else wants to kill all of them, for defying the war, for engaging in forbidden love (or miscegenation, as most of society would have it) and for giving birth to a child who might possibly represent a path to peace for the galaxy.

There are bounty hunters, ghosts, magic, giant tree-spaceships, people with televisions for heads, trashy romance novels, horror, sex, violence, humour and (in the very first scene) the miracle of birth, complete with swearing and a sword fight.

Saga is a very adults-only book with a wonderfully operatic backdrop for the flight of the lovers – and their pursuit by mercenaries, super-spies, parents-in-law and murderous ex-lovers. Marko and Alana are great characters – brave, devoted and competent but also flawed and capable of exceedingly poor judgment – but the book is elevated by the many fantastic secondary characters, especially the relentless bounty hunter The Will (the profession of bounty hunter appears to confer singular titles, for some reason) and Izabel the dismembered teenaged ghost, who acts as Hazel’s baby-sitter. And Marko’s parents, who are senior figures in the Wreather military establishment. And Lying Cat, The Will’s pet/partner, who is an emaciated hairless cat who can tell when someone is lying. Lying Cat gets all the best lines.

Saga is beautiful. Fiona staples’ art is sumptuous. Just look at this cover:

Breastfeeding mothers are badass

Breastfeeding mothers are badass.

Vaughan has described Saga as being his vehicle for creating concepts that can’t be realised in television or movies, and Staples’ art more than delivers on the often bizarre grandeur and grotesqueness of the setting. A recent issue featured a for-want-of-a-better-term upskirt shot of a deformed giant’s scrotum, which was both a feat of remarkable technical drawing and easily as horrible as it sounds.

Oh, I should mention, there’s a lot of sex in this book. Some of it is just explicit but otherwise ordinary, but some elements like the existence of an underage sex-slave whom The Will attempts to rescue, is confronting and unpleasant and skirts the line into exploitation. It didn’t cross it for me, as the material is presented as objectionable by sympathetic characters and is treated without sentimentality. Your line may be drawn elsewhere. There was also a controvery surrounding the sneak-insertion of a gay porn money shot into a couple of panels in a recent issue. I found that pretty hilarious but again you may not agree.

This is a story about war, about love and about the strength of social and family ties in the face of unimaginable pressure. The dialogue is sharp, the art is breathtaking and the story is so bursting with potential that it could go anywhere. It’s clear (from the name and the setup) that Vaughan and Staples have every intention of making Saga a landmark SF&F epic to equal Star Wars or A Song of Ice and Fire. They might never achieve that lofty ambition, but based on what we’ve seen and the accolades rolling in – several Eisners and a Hugo, not to mention best-sellerdom – they haven’t fallen short yet.

Look, there are already two very reasonably priced trades (Saga Volumes 1 and 2) available, which I recommend without hesitation.

April 4, 2013

Review – Write the Fight Right by Alan Baxter

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,wordsmithery — Tags: , , , , — lexifab @ 10:54 am

Alan Baxter is a writer and a kung fu instructor, and if that sounds like a handy combination, it is. Write the Fight Right (WtFR) draws on his experiences in the dojo and the odd real-life street confrontation to help writers bring a touch of reality to their fight scenes.

Baxter helpfully breaks the book into several sections, broadly starting with how fights actually unfold in real life, and in particular showing which factors are the most important in determining the outcome (footwork, reach, training, size and – crucially – the ability to not be where the other guy is throwing a punch). The second set of chapters describe the physiological elements of a chaotic punchup – adrenaline rushes, the effects of pain, getting knocked out – and the mental side of things – how fear and anger matter, what a fighter might see and hear, the psychological benefits of training and so on. The final part deals briefly with weapons, with the take-home message that pulling a knife or a club or a sword out is an orders-of-magnitude escalation of a violent situation, to be avoided at all costs by anyone with a shred of sanity. The book is rounded out with a helpful checklist, summarising the things a writer could consider in putting together a fight scene.

Throughout the book Baxter keeps his eyes firmly on bringing these elements out in tight, well-focused writing. There’s a lot to consider but his advice is not to overegg an action scene: “Don’t try to use everything , but pick and choose things that suit the kind of fight you’re writing or the kind of environment you’re setting the fight in. Also think hard about your characters and what kind of experience they have and what sort of personality they have, which will affect their reactions and perceptions of fighting.”

Baxter has a good nose for the sorts of clichés used by writers with little to no experience of physical altercations (me included) and exhorts the reader to get rid of them. It’s all good, sound advice written in a practical and no-nonsense style. Baxter comes across as a natural teacher; his explanations are clear and his conversational language gives the whole piece the air of a convivial bar conversation. WtFR isn’t a long book – more like a longish essay – but it is a readable and useful reference work for writers whose genre fiction includes a good splash of biffo.

(Alan’s also one of the cohosts of the ThrillerCast podcast, which I reviewed a little while ago, and a fellow alumnus of the Canberra Speculative Fiction Guild. And a charming and funny chap with a new book coming out soon!)

February 25, 2013

My Ditmar nominations

Filed under: books of 2012,wordsmithery — Tags: , , , — lexifab @ 9:05 pm

So the Ditmars – also known as the Australian SF Awards 2013, for works published in 2012 – will be awarded at Conflux 9 this year, and nominations are open to (a) members of the convention and (b) persons active in the Australian speculative fiction community. I don’t really know what it takes to be the latter [1], but I am definitely the former, so I’m putting up nominations for the various eligible things that I read and thought were worth some attention. How this translates into a voting process, I don’t quite know yet, but I like feeling like a participant, so here – without further commentary because I have a novel I need to get back to – is my list:

Best Novel

  • And All the Stars, Andrea K. Höst, Andrea K. Hösth.
  • The Rook, Daniel O’Malley, Little, Brown and Company.

Best Novella or Novelette

  • “HG”, Edwina Harvey, in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 54.
  • “The Darkest Shade of Grey”, Alan Baxter, in The Darkest Shade of Grey, The Red Penny Papers.
  • “The Subjunctive Case”, Robert Porteous, in Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, Peggy Bright Books.
  • “Sky”, Kaaron Warren, in Through Splintered Walls, Twelfth Planet Press.

Best Short Story

  • “Creek”, Kaaron Warren, in Through Splintered Walls, Twelfth Planet Press.
  • “Crossroads and Carousels”, Alan Baxter, in The Red Penny Papers, Fall 2012.
  • “First They Came …”, Deborah Kalin, in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 55.
  • “Head Shot”, Dirk Flinthart, in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 54.
  • “Isles of the Sun”, Margo Lanagan, in Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press.
  • “Roasted”, Robert Porteous, in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 54.
  • “Significant Dust”, Margo Lanagan, in Cracklescape, Twelfth Planet Press.
  • “Sky”, Kaaron Warren, in Through Splintered Walls, Twelfth Planet Press. (Edit: novella, not a short story)
  • “The Bone Chime Song”, Joanne Anderton, in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, Peggy Bright Books.
  • “The D____d”, Adam Browne, in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, Peggy Bright Books.
  • “The Godbreaker and Unggubudh the Mountain”, Ian McHugh, in Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, Peggy Bright Books.
  • “The Goodbye Message”, Alan Baxter, in ticon4, April 2, 2012.
  • “The New House”, Kate Rowe, in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine 55.
  • “Tiny Lives”, Alan Baxter, in Daily Science Fiction, December 25th, 2012.

Best Collected Work

  • Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine, Andromeda Spaceways Publishing Co-op.
  • Cracklescape by Margo Lanagan, edited by Alisa Krasnostein, Twelfth Planet Press.
  • Light Touch Paper Stand Clear, Edwina Harvey and Simon Petrie, Peggy Bright Books.
  • Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren, edited by Alisa Krasnostein, Twelfth Planet Press.

Best Fan Writer

  • Alan Baxter, for body of work including reviews in Thirteen O’Clock.
  • Ian Mond, for body of work including reviews in Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth.
  • Jason Nahrung, for body of work including reviews in Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus.
  • Tansy Rayner Roberts, for body of work including reviews in Not If You Were The Last Short Story On Earth.
  • Grant Watson, for body of work including the Who50 series in The Angriest.
  • Tehani Wessely, for body of work including reviews in Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus.
  • Sean Wright, for body of work including reviews in Adventures of a Bookonaut.

Best Fan Publication

  • Galactic Suburbia, Alisa Krasnostein, Alex Pierce, and Tansy Rayner Roberts.
  • Australian Speculative Fiction in Focus, Alisa Krasnostein et al.
  • Galactic Chat, Tansy Rayner Roberts,Alisa Krasnostein and Sean Wright.
  • Last Short Story podcast (pre-season episodes), Jonathan Strahan and Ian Mond.
  • Snapshot 2012, Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright
  • The Adventures of a Bookonaut Podcast, Sean Wright[4]
  • The Coode Street Podcast, Gary K. Wolfe and Jonathan Strahan.
  • The Writer and the Critic, Kirstyn McDermott and Ian Mond.

 

[1] I have a blog. That’s kind of “active”, right? Even if it’s a community of about eight people?

January 5, 2013

Favourites of 2012 – Novels

Filed under: books of 2012,reviewage — lexifab @ 10:08 am

I had a pretty good reading year. It was wildly unfocused, as my reading list always is, but obviously most of my reading for pleasure comes from genre fiction [1] and then mainly in the sf&f fields. I like mysteries, but I don’t think I read anything in 2012 that was exclusively a mystery story.

Picking a top ten isn’t easy, especially if you apply metrics as vague as “Do I remember really, really liking this one?”, like I do. But it’s easier because I don’t attempt to make any claims as to literary merit or significance. These are just the ten novels I liked the best last year, in reverse order of preference:

10 – Hidden Things by Doyce Testerman

In many ways Hidden Things is the common fantasy trope of a mundane woman who is drawn into the unseen supernatural world, combined with a cross-country road trip. I’ve seen it compared to Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, but the resemblance is superficial I think. It’s more reminiscent to me of works by Jonathan Carroll, and its themes of forgiveness within familiesand reconciliation with mistakes of the past are mature for a first novel. The floating narrative style soothed and beguiled, the dialogue was witty and fun and the author didn’t make the mistake of over-explaining the fantastic elements of the story. The ending is emotionally brutal and deeply satisfying.

9 – The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien

One of the few books sneakily inserted into Lost that I had never read or even heard of, The Third Policeman is an absurd, dreamlike descent-into-hell narrative about a rather dull-witted, gullible young man who commits a murder and possibly goes mad as a consequence, meeting a host of confusing and vexatious characters who could be insane, or conspiring against him, or agents sent to punish him. It’s delightful, absurd and frequently blackly comic.

8 - Stained Glass Monsters by Andrea K. Höst

I reviewed it here. Dense and engaging, romantic and thrilling and featuring some very exciting set pieces and  coherent, plot-integrated worldbuilding. I particularly enjoyed the somewhat reluctant, dutiful heroine who would much prefer to be putting her feet up than saving the world.

7 – Debris by Jo Anderton

I reviewed it here. Wonderful magic system that completely informs the world building, a tough and pragmatic heroine who refuses to take the destruction of her reputation and life’s work lying down, and a satisfyingly weird plot.

6 – And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

I reviewed it here. I may have quibbled about elements of it but the overall effect was wonderful. A meaty, thoughtful apocalypse-in-progress adventure with smart, engaging and compelling characters [2]. Heartbreaking at times.

5 – Walking the Tree by Kaaron Warren

I reviewed it here. It was a bit of a tossup whether Kaaron Warren’s Slights also made it onto the list, but this one made it for being weird, haunting and gloriously unusual. It’s a coming of age story of sorts, but the richness is in the storytelling about the strange and sometime horrifying customs of neighbouring cultures.

4 – Silently and Very Fast by Cathrynn M. Valente

I’m cheating a bit here because this is a novella. I include it here based on the wholly subjective criterion that it felt to me more like a novel than a long short story. Silently is the story of an eclectic family’s relationship with its custom-made household AI over several generations. As far as I can recall this is the only thing by Cat Valente that I’ve ever read, but the writing in this piece is so beautiful, heartfelt and tragic that I know I’ll be hunting down some of her other work. It won the Hugo for Best Novella last year. I read some fantastic novellas in 2012 – it’s a form I have avoided like the plague in the past, for reasons that now elude me – but this one had the best writing of all of them.

3 – Bait Dog by Chuck Wendig

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I’m a Wendig fanboy. No surprises that he’s near the top of my list (and – spoilers! – also *at* the top). Bait Dog is the sequel to Shotgun Gravy, the first Atlanta Burns novella, about a hurt, sarcastic high school avenger with a squirrel gun and a hate-on for bullies. The sequel only exists because it was successfully funded through Kickstarter (along with another sequel due sometime this year). But all of that would be beside the point if it were not also an absolutely riveting book. Set in the squalid dog-fighting scene of back-country Pennysylvania, it is vicious, amoral and sometimes sickening (there’s at least a couple of scenes of strong animal cruelty that are much, much harder to read than any of the violence inflict on the human characters). But the writing is so good, you guys! The prose pumps, driving you from scene to scene, sometimes in spite of your likely sense of reluctant horror. And Atlanta Burns is such a fun young adult protagonist [3], smart and resourceful but also too angry to think straight most of the time. Her violent response to bullies invariably makes bad situations worse, and Wendig never shies away from hammering his heroine with the consequences of her hasty decisions. It’s hard, painful reading, but I honestly can’t recommend Bait Dog enough.[4]

2 – If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller by Italo Calvino

I reviewed it briefly here. A roaming wander through almost a dozen literary and genre forms, telling an absurd story about the search for an author through a series of half-finished manuscripts and an increasingly incredible conspiracy plot. It’s great fun and a sly insight into the mentality of obsessive readers. I found If on a Winter’s Night beguiling.

1 – Blackbirds/Mockingbird by Chuck Wendig

Yes, I’m cheating again. Blackbirds (reviewed here) and Mockingbird (reviewed here) are complete novels in their own right, but they became instantly inseparable in my reading canon. The first and second novels about Miriam Black, a very messed-up drifter who sees the deaths of the people she touches, are compelling works of dark, violent fantasy. (Just as an aside, they also have the best covers of any fantasy novels I saw this year – just take a look at those links. Simply gorgeous). Miriam Black is a wonderful character, damaged, clever and pissed off at all the supernatural horrors making her life a living hell. Wendig is at the top of his game with the Miriam books – the writing flows like a flooded river, sweeping the reader in and pounding, slashing and drowning them with irresistible pace.

So, compiling this list, I noticed something I didn’t expect – nine of the eleven books feature female protagonists. Only The Third Policeman‘s narrator is definitely male, and it’s strongly implied that the “you” of If on a Winter’s Night is a heterosexual man. Other than that, all women. I don’t know if I can self-diagnose a definite preference for female protagonists from this small a sample size, but I definitely enjoy reading stories about resourceful, determined women with plot agency. Fair to say I probably haven’t yet outgrown Buffy the Vampire Slayer

 

[1] Excluding romance, I’m afraid. I’ve never developed much of a taste for it, unless it happens to show up in other genre works (as it often does in fantasy). I’ve no objections to it, though, so if anyone has any promising recommendations, let me know.

[2] Andrea, cousin Tyler needs a spinoff novel. C’mon!

[3] In case it was not clear, Atlanta Burns is a young adult. Bait Dog is not necessarily YA. It would have given me nightmares for weeks when I was thirteen, I think.

[4] I bought it for my Mum for Christmas. I am totally serious.

January 1, 2013

Stats of 2012 – Books read

This is long, and probably of interest to nobody but me (especially since I have been posting monthly summaries throughout the year). It’s my complete [1] reading list for 2012. Some achievements:

  • I read 66 books in the year, which fell 14 short of my faintly-ridiculous Goodreads target of 80. Of course I would have nailed it if I’d included graphic novels and comic trades, so I’ll call that a win. Of course, trying to read so much chewed into writing time more than I really wanted it to, so
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #1 – Set a more modest target for books read, like one per week or something. I am allowed to read more if I hit my writing targets, whatever they happen to be.
  • I read 12 and reviewed 11 novels by Australian women for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 [2].
  • I read only a handful (5 or so) non-fiction books, not counting various works of writing advice. Now, one of the abandoned books was also non-fiction (about the actually-fascinating history of fonts and typesetting) which I only quit on because the person I borrowed it from was leaving the country.
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #2 – read more than one non-fiction book in 2013. Collections of Doctor Who essays do not count.
  • I read a lot more single-author short story collections (7) and anthologies (12) in 2012 than probably ever before in my life. This was a generally rewarding experience and I mean to continue in that fashion.
  • Non-binding New Year’s Resolution #3 – read a metric tonne of short fiction. I believe that I will actually track the short pieces I read in 2013, just to see how much of that I consume as well.
  • Most frequent authors – I read 4 books by Chuck Wendig (not counting two novellas), 4 books by Kaaron Warren (not counting her novella in Ishtar), 3 by Andrea K. Höst and 3 by Matt Forbeck (who did the crazy 12 for ’12 project and nearly pulled it off).
  • I read The Hobbit for the first time in my life, out loud (in a faux-Stephen Fry narrator voice, with a bad Ian Holm for Bilbo, a not-terrible Ian McKellen for Gandalf and a way-toned-down Andy Serkis for Gollum) to my five year old son. It took all year. Short review: There are more boring geographic descriptions than I would have expected in a book for children, but the poetry scans better than the stuff in LotR. Also Thorin Oakenshield is a bit of a dick.

In the grand internet tradition, I will do my Best of 2012 lists (which is to say, the stuff I like most that I happened to read this year) in another post.

[1] “complete”, except for comics and graphic novels, anything I read online (blogs, essays, etc), podcasts, and a couple of novels and several short stories that I beta-read for other people. It also doesn’t include a couple of books that I started but didn’t finish, for whatever reason.

[2] Sorry Andrea – I should have done the Touchstone Trilogy as well, but I didn’t get around to it! Will do better with Champion of the Rose when I read that!

(more…)

December 31, 2012

Review – Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett

One last review for 2012, and one last entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012. This will be a quick one because it’s New Year’s Eve and I have to go see in 2013 by reading comics and falling asleep long before midnight. I’d blame this weakness on the kids, but frankly the annual turn of the calendar hasn’t exerted much pull on me for the last decade or so. Not being a fan of fireworks or getting drunk in public, NYE has sod-all to recommend it. Unlike the subject of this review, Bluegrass Symphony by Lisa L. Hannett.

Bluegrass Symphony is a collection of twelve short stories by Lisa L. Hannett, published by Ticonderoga Press. Though an Australian writer, Hannett has set her stories in unspecified parts of the US south. They are fantastic, exploring new takes on ghosts, vampires, werewolves and other things in a voice that seems (to my untrained ear) authentically Southern Gothic. These are beautiful stories, even the ugly ones – and a few of them are very dark indeed. In particular the chilling and repulsive vampires of “From the Teeth of Strange Children” touch not only on the horrific amorality of immortal blood drinkers but also the twisted sexuality of the vampire legend in ways I’ve not seen before.

These are all strong dark fantasy tales. Most are not as out and out horrific as “Teeth”, but they all have at least a tantalising undercurrent of darkness. The standouts are probably “Down the Hollow” in which a community’s grotesque fertility rite goes wrong, and the astonishing “The Short Go: a future in eight seconds”, which wraps together rodeo riding, minotaur hunting, divination and marriage rites together to amazing effect. It deservedly shared the Aurealis Award for Best Short Story this year with Paul Haines’ “The Past is a Bridge Best Left Burned”, and that was a breathtaking piece.

I’ve digressed, so let me mention one more story. The collection opens with a short, dreamlike piece called “Carousel”, without doubt my favourite in the book. It’s one of the shorter stories, a beautiful elegaic piece about a dying girl being comforted in her final moments by moths. It’s heartbreaking and funny and somewhat grotesque, and it has a lovely punchline. It sets the tone for the rest of Bluegrass Symphony wonderfully well.

December 30, 2012

Review – Through Splintered Walls by Kaaron Warren

It’s late in the year, but not too late to add a couple more reviews for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012 (coming soon: AWWC 2013. Seriously, get in on that action). I’ve long since “won” the challenge at the Franklin level by reading ten titles and reviewing at least six. More to the point of the exercise, though, I have won in the sense of learning about quite a few writers whose stories and names were unknown to me, among them Tansy Rayner Roberts, Deb Biancotti, Jo Anderton and the author of this collection, Kaaron Warren. And through the Challenge, there are plenty of others to follow up on come the new year.

Through Splintered Walls is a collection of three short stories and a novella by Kaaron Warren. This is the rusty orange-covered entry in the Twelve Planets series from Twelfth Planet Press, each of which collects thematically-linked works from a female Australian writer. Kaaron Warren has planted her flag in the weird/dark/horror fantasy corner of the genre, and the four stories collected here are an impressive showcase of her range. The short stories “Mountain”, “Creek”, “Road” and the novella “Sky” are inspired by features of the Australian landscape, and there are hints of a faintly Lovecraftian indifference of the sunburnt country to its human inhabitants.

“Mountain” is the unsettling memoir of a woman whose life takes an unexpected turn following a supernatural encounter. A story about relinquishing and resuming control in one’s life and the consequences of both, a subtle sense of dread accretes at its core but “Mountain” is more an emotional drama than a supernatural one.

“Creek” is straight-out supernatural horror, featuring the chilling Quaking Women, as horrible as they are unmistakeably Australian. It’s sad and malign and probably my favourite of the collection. There’s an emotional gut-punch at the end of the story that’s all the more effective because I should have seen it coming and didn’t.

“Road” is a sweet little ghost story about one of Australia’s many “black spots”, referring to those notorious stretches of road where fatal accidents tend to happen, and why you might see one of those memorial wreaths laid out there.

“Sky”, the novella, is one of those horror stories that stays with you. It is a horrific, sprawling tale that begins with a tiny act of callous cruelty and becomes a clinical examination of the insidiousness of human malice – how it can begin, how it spreads and how it can become institutionalised. It asks bleak questions about humanity and finds the answers lacking, but it is a compelling read. And if ever a story has paid off on the promise of its opening passage with its closing sentence, it’s “Sky”. The ending is utterly sickening, but it earns the reader’s repulsion.

Through Splintered Walls was a complete success for me. Creepy, daring and provocative, the horror stemming from humanity unhinged as often as from the supernatural, each as nasty as the other.

December 5, 2012

Review – And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst

I think that due to website load issues, or possibly other reasons, the Australian Women Writers Challenge is formally over for 2012. They are currently running a mini-survey to measure its impact, so if you think it might have had one then I encourage you to go and check it out. I’ve already signed up for more of the same in 2013, both because I think it goes some way towards redressing imbalances in acknowledgment and celebration of Australian writers in public discussions and – much more importantly from a personal point of view – because by participating in the Challenge this year, I’ve discovered many Australian writers (men too) about whom I was previously wholly ignorant. In terms of expanding my awareness of the Australian speculative fiction scene, the AWWC has been an unparalleled success. But whether or not the Challenge is still going officially or not, I’m not done with it and intend to keep reading and reviewing right up until New Year’s Eve. All of which is a long-winded introduction to my review of And All the Stars.

And All the Stars by Andrea K. Höst [1] is a YA apocalypse-in-progress adventure set in modern-day Sydney. As the story opens, teenager Madeleine Cost’s plans to ditch school to conduct a portrait-sitting with her newly-famous cousin come to grief when a vast alien spike suddenly punches up from the earth. In the chaos that ensues in the shadow of the towering black spire, just one of many that have appeared around the world, Madeleine struggles to stay alive in a quarantine zone, gathers around herself a growing army of survivor and discovers unexpected side-effects of the disaster.

Post-apocalyptica seems to be a big thing in YA writing at the moment, but I think there’s an untapped vein of possibilities in telling stories about the collapse of civilisation as it happens. AAtS maintains a constant, narrow focus on Madeleine and her friends as they establish themselves, build relationships and make survival plans. The strange worldwide catastrophe looms as a mysterious background presence, which makes it all the more threatening when it intrudes on the survivors. Like any good YA adventure, the key here is the relationships: the growing friendships, the petty arguments, the buildup of trust – and coping in the aftermath of tragedy and betrayal. For all of its strong emotions, AAtS never steps over the line into angsty melodrama, which I for one appreciated.

And All the Stars is a not-quite-cosy catastrophe. The characters’ circumstances are dangerous and constrained, their fear of capture or worse is oppressive and justified, and their losses are keenly felt – but at the same time they have pretty good wifi and access to food and shelter. It makes for an odd – but not unbelievable – atmosphere, combining the tension and paranoia of survival in enemy occupied territory with a curiously larkish teenage high-spiritedness. Think ‘The Famous Five Go to Stalingrad’!

Probably the most impressive thing about AAtS is that it’s told and done in a single volume; the author has commendably resisted the urge to bloat the story out to a trilogy. The downside is that the resolution of the plot feels a bit rushed –  towards the end, the acceleration to the climax after a slow expository scene feels almost hasty. In terms of the characters and their relationships, though, the end comes at just the right time. That said, I would happily inhale a sequel with these characters.

 

[1] Hey look, I finally figured out how to do a frackin’ umlaut. It turns out there’s a whole extra hidden toolbar in the WordPress editing menu, including the ‘Insert custom character’ tool. At last, I can spell Andrea’s surname properly without looking like a massive nitwit.

 

November 20, 2012

Review – The Last City by Nina D’Aleo

Filed under: books of 2012,books read,reviewage,women writers challenge 2012 — lexifab @ 10:26 pm

It’s been a while since I reviewed something for the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2012, so I will take a few quick minutes out to mention a novel I picked up as part of a giveaway from Momentum Books.

The Last City by Nina D’Aleo is one of the first speculative releases from Momentum (Pan MacMillan Australia’s digital-only imprint). My copy came as a free promotion from the Amazon Kindle store.

The Last City is a strange melange of cop procedural, survivalist thriller and epic fantasy – in fact, the book can be divided into three parts that roughly correspond with those descriptors. It’s set in a vast, crowded, intensely stratified – physically, economically and culturally – megatropolis called Scorpia, the nominal last city on an apparently arid world. The story concerns a squadron of elite police investigators called the Oscuri trackers, led by the pleasingly pulpishly-alliterative Commander Copernicus Kane. As the story begins the Oscuri, including first-day-on-the-job rookie Silho Brabel and socially-awkward genius Eli Anklebiter, are investigating a gruesome, ritualistic multiple murder. As is so often the way of things, that crime leads inexorably to gang wars, royal intrigues, demon infestations, revolutionary uprisings and horrors from beyond the dawn of time.

D’Aleo’s worldbuilding is compelling and rich, if occasionally somewhat patchy. The population of her world of Aquais are all descendents of some form of genetic splicing (whether magic, superscience or spirit-binding was the original cause is unclear, though I would bet good money that the author has detailed notes). These various bloodlines bestow everything from physical and behavioural attributes to magical superpowers – lion-breeds socialise in prides, cobra-breeds have fangs and spit venom, and so on. Scorpia comes across as a magical reflection, albeit a couple of orders of magnitude more populous, of Bladerunner’s LA – multicultural but ghettoised, steeped in history and habitual cultural behaviours. Much of this we see from a somewhat jaded cop’s perspective – the story does not touch on much of day to day life for the presumed millions of ordinary Scorpians.

I had a few problems in reading The Last City, most of which would probably not bother other readers. The story is presented from multiple points of view, and virtually every character with any prominence in the story is tormented with the need to protect a dark secret from their past. Some of these hidden secrets forge improbable connections between the main characters and the rest are plot-essential linkages to a rising demonic menace. The tight interconnectedness of the leads felt out of place against the sprawling urban chaos of the setting.

The balance of the pacing is a bit strange. The early investigation scenes are painstaking and methodical to a frustrating degree, and the momentum gathers very slowly as the demonic shenanigans get rolling. The final act, by comparison, is full of exhilarating and desperate action. I found my perserverance rewarded with the ending, but it was only obstinacy on my part that got me to that point. I also had trouble identifying with several of the characters for much of the story, and it was only towards the final third – when the epic threat has fully manifested and the whole world is at stake – that I felt most of them started to kick into gear.

Overall I thought The Last City was a good read that never quite made it to a great read for me. It’s inventive and thoughtful but the pace is deliberate and some of the characters wear their plot-essentialism a little too close to the surface for me. That said, once the setup is out of the way and the action gets started, it’s a satisfying epic technomagical thriller.

November 1, 2012

Books of 2012 – October

Filed under: books of 2012,books read — lexifab @ 10:27 am

A very quick entry because I did not get through very many titles last month:

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher – The…12th (I think, or maybe the 13th) instalment in the Harry Dresden novels, and the one about which I feel least comfortable saying anything, because spoilers. Most of the novels in this series can be summarised thus: Harry, a Chicago wizard PI,  takes on what looks like a simple case involving the supernatural, albeit one with worrying implications. It soon turns out that the case is far more complicated, dangerous and potentially apocalyptic than he realised. Wisecracks, explosions and magical mayhem duly follow, and there is a very big fight at the end. Butcher knows how to construct a really tight action-adventure story and roll it out at decent pace (although this one is a little slower and more reflective than most because of spoilers). If you happen to want to read them, though, I strongly recommend skipping the first couple and jumping straight to book 3 Summer Knight.

Anywhere but Earth by Various (Edited by Keith Stevenson) – Massive volume of short stories that I spent most of the month reading. I reviewed it last week, you may recall.

These bring my annual total of non-comic books read to 52 (I think). I am not likely to make my target of 80 books, but I’m still doing okay, I’d say.

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