6.16.2010

Daemon, by Daniel Suarez

Daemon
Daemon
Every now and then, I compliment a writer by saying they write in a cinematic way. They can make the characters and the action so real that, in a reader's mind, the action plays out like a movie. Daniel Suarez's Daemon is the most cinematic book I've ever encountered. Descriptive without being overwritten, Daemon is full of explosions, double crosses, antagonists and protagonists with murky motivations, more explosions, chases, and incredible fight scenes. I am so looking forward to the sequel.

Daemon is the story of men against technology. Imagine an antagonist that can never be reasoned with, that out thinks you at every turn, that has unknowable goals, and that has access to nearly infinite resources. That's what our heroes are up against in this book. After the death of an eccentric video game designing billionaire, a series of deadly events is triggered. The only link is that technology--specifically the Internet--played a part. The detectives (and later the FBI) can't find a human perpetrator. The person everything starts to trace back to has been dead for days before the first murders. At this point, I started to wonder if the plot was going to be something like the one in Jeffrey Deaver's Blue Nowhere, where a computer-aided murderer goes on a rampage. But it soon became clear that the Daemon's (the name of the billionaire's software) plan was much, much bigger than that.

Suarez starts to bring in other characters. In addition to Detective Sergeant Sebeck, who's investigating the murders, we met the black hat hacker Gragg and white hat hacker Jon Ross, Dr. Phillips from the NSA, the former prisoner turned assassin Charles, the Major (who works for some unidentified alphabet organization), and a would-be investigative journalist who gets all her tips from the Daemon. The book switches back and forth between all these perspectives. On the one hand, the baddies seem to have their act together. Following computer issued orders, they forward the Daemon's plan--whatever it is. And then on the other hand, the good guys are so disjointed (and occasionally thwarted by people who are supposed to be on their side) that defeating the Daemon seems well nigh impossible.

And then there's the Daemon itself. As its capabilities reveal themselves, you can't help but admire the mind that created it (and the author that thought up the idea in the first place). That bit of script thinks of everything. And because it was designed by an ueber-gamer, it's got a kind of sadistic creativity when it comes to taking on the good guys. The bloody battles that punctuate the book read almost like boss fights in games, but there are no do-overs or respawning.

The ending of Daemon is a clear set up for the next book, Freedom. While some plot threads are wrapped up and you do get some of the satisfaction that comes with finishing a book, the very last chapter reads like a prologue for the next book. Having it read it, I just have to read the next one, if only to see what fresh hells the Daemon cooks up for our heroes.

6.13.2010

Boneshaker, by Cherie Priest

Boneshaker
Boneshaker
How can I resist a book billed as a steampunk zombie novel? I took Cherie Priest's Boneshaker home from the library Friday evening and finished it last night. Because the end clearly set up a sequel, I look forward to the next installment of the adventures of the Wilkes family.

Boneshaker is set in an alternate Seattle. More than that, it's set in an alternate United States where the Civil War has just entered its 18th year of fighting. All the action takes place in Seattle and on Bainbridge Island. So where did the zombies come from? About 16 years before the start of the novel, a man named Leviticus Blue--supposedly to win a prize from the Russians--created a massive drill (the eponymous Boneshaker). On its first test run, the drill destroyed the financial district and let loose a gas known as the Blight. The Blight is highly toxic and, after it kills you, it turns you into something like a Boyle zombie called a rotter. Downtown Seattle was evacuated and, to contain the Blight, a massive wall was built and the population evacuated. The gas is still seeping out of the ground and, for the non-zombies who still live in the infected area, air has to be pulled down to street level and gas masks worn outside of safe areas.

The novel follows two main characters, Briar Wilkes and her son, Zeke. Briar is the widow of the man who created the drill and is a social outcast. Zeke is desperate to prove that his father was an innocent inventor. When Zeke goes over the wall to try and prove this, Briar has to enlist the help of air pirates* to get over the wall an rescue him. Zeke meets Doornails (nickname for the living on the other side of the wall) with suspect motives for helping him and runs away from rotters. Briar meets people who honor her sheriff father's peace and who help her try and track down her idiot son. Meanwhile, they both try to stay out of the way of the tin pot dictator who runs a lot of the polluted territory. This man, a Dr. Minnericht, sounds an awful lot like Briar's inventor husband.

It took me a chapter to two to get into the book, most likely because of all the hype on the back cover. Boneshaker starts out sounding a lot like your standard steampunk alternate history. The book really gets going when the action shifts to inside the wall and the terrifyingly fast and clever rotters show up. Hell, even the air is dangerous and the characters have to be very careful to wear gas masks with strong filters. One minor character lets his slip and he gets zombified within minutes.

Northwalk, Seattle
From Seattle's
Underground Tour
There is a lot of unbelievable stuff in this book. What helps is that Priest made the setting so real. Many summers ago, I went on the Underground Tour of Seattle. Seattle has a fairly wacky frontier history as it is; it really is a great place to set a novel like this. The characters spend a lot of time underground. Every time they went below, I was reminded of what I'd seen on the tour. There are tunnels underneath downtown Seattle. They're close and dark and dirty and I could totally imagine rotters running around down there. The tour should probably be required before reading this book. At the end, Priest writes a defensive sounding Author's Note where she apologizes for the liberties she took with the history and yes, she knows that X wasn't built until 18-whatever.

Boneshaker is a very original and very enjoyable book. The only thing I didn't really like was Zeke, who seems to waver between being a defiant young man and a whiny teenager. When he's in whiny mode, he's a little hard to take. At points, when Zeke was trying not to puke in his gas mask, I couldn't help but think that this little inside-the-wall jaunt would be good for his character. Briar is the best part of the book, I think. She's strong and determined. Even when a literal man in armor comes to rescue her, there's some question about who's rescuing who. I look forward to seeing more of her.

* All steampunk novels have to have dirigibles. It's the law, apparently.

6.12.2010

Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland

Owl Killers
Owl Killers
The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland, is some of the best historical fiction that I've read in a while. I'm always a bit tentative about reading historical fiction, because I really hate it when the books have glaring anachronisms or when the characters behave in a 21st century manner in, say, in 1700s or Ancient Rome. This is why I will not, under any circumstances, read Ariana Franklin. In my opinion, the best historical fiction will not only make a vanished time and place come to life, but it will also challenge you to understand how people thought and behaved at that time. The Owl Killers does both.

This story, told in several voices, takes place in a fictional (but historically accurate) village near Norwich in 1320-1321, about 25 years before the Black Death blitzed its way across England. It doesn't take long for Maitland to show you that something sinister is going on in Ulewic. Unless you do some research into it, it's easy to get the impression that Europe's conversion to Christianity happened quickly. Constantine converts. Early church saints and believers spread out and breach the gospels and, in a few centuries, mission accomplished. But in some parts of Europe, old beliefs hung on. You can still see some of examples today: Christmas trees, getting dressed up for Halloween, mid summer festivals in the Midwest. While Ulewic has a church and a priest and a newly formed beguinage, they're still clinging pretty fiercely to their old ways. Social order is still maintained by the secretive Owl Masters, men in masks who worship local variations of the old Celtic gods. If you do read this book, make sure you read the historical note at the end. It's fascinating.

Life in Ulewic is far from ideal. There've been bad harvests. The greedy local lord and the sinful priest have tithed and taxed the people too much. There's a flood. There's illness. The only place that seems to be doing alright is the beguinage, founded by women just over from the successful beguine communities in Flanders. Because these women are not nuns--beguines only took an oath of chastity, were free to leave at any time, and retained their own property--they're not really under the control of anyone. Partly because of that, and partly because they're not sick and starving, it's easy for the priest and the Owl Masters to stir up the locals against them. Most of the book is about these two sides sparring against each other. The longer I read, the more dread I felt. I completely sympathized with the beguines (even though they're very pious) and it was clear that something terrible was going to happen.

I've read few books that have as many narrators as The Owl Killers. It's got to be hard to try and write in five or six first person perspectives and give them their own unique voice. Maitland juggles her narrators skillfully, and the effect is that, while there is a larger story that unites them, there are several smaller stories happening at the same time. We meet Servant Martha, the leader of the beguines, who struggles to keep her women safe and united in purpose. We meet Father Ulfrid, the horny priest sent to Ulewic in punishment. He tries to be a good priest (briefly) and fulfill his duties, but he rapidly becomes a puppet for the local lordling and the Owl Masters. We meet Beatrice, a disappointed women who goes mad over the course of the novel. There's Agatha, a new beguine with terrible secrets who becomes a heretic after reading a book. And there's poor Pisspuddle, the only narrator who isn't in either camp. She's there to show what life is like for the villagers.

As I read, two things jumped out at me. First, there was the attitudes towards women that people of the time had. My God, the misogyny! It wore me down and I was just a reader. There was only one male narrator in this book, but I don't think more would have helped. The women just can't get ahead in this book. People fear the beguines' independence and are jealous of their success. The central conflict in this book is between the beguines and the Owl Masters, but it might just as well have been between men and women. Historical fiction like this makes be glad that I was born in the 20th century and makes me want to thank, profusely and profoundly, the suffragettes and the feminists.

Second, there was the religious attitudes. To these people, I'm sure that even Salt Lake City would look like a den of iniquity. 1321 was centuries before the Enlightenment. If people reasoned, they would reason out a supernatural explanation for their situation. If the cattle failed, it was because someone hexed them or it was God's will. The same if children fell ill and died. Therefore, the only way to make things right was to either appease God (or the local gods) or find the witch, though touching a holy relic wouldn't go amiss. God (and the gods) were everywhere and they were active. The characters in this book literally see demons and gods in this book. This is one of those things that is hard for me to wrap my 21st century mind around and reminded me that the past really is a foreign country.

*SPOILERS AHEAD. STOP READING IF YOU DON'T WANT TO KNOW HOW IT ENDS*

The Owl Killers is a terrific read. The only place it falters, I think, is near the end. After all the fighting and terror of the middle, the end fizzles. As I got closer and started to run out of pages, I wondered how Maitland was going to wrap it all up. It all boils down to a big (ish) confrontation and then all the survivors (more than I would have guessed) go their separate ways. The beguines pack it in and head back to Flanders. Father Ulfrid goes back to trying to maintain the church's toehold in Ulewic. Pisspuddle and her brother leave the village. And that's it. Except for the people who did die, the whole incident might never have happened. The only satisfaction I had was knowing that the village was probably going to die completely in a year or so.

*SPOILERS END*

I highly recommend The Owl Killers to fans of darker than normal historical fiction and to any fans of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages. This is a well-researched and well-constructed novel. Even the supernatural parts seem utterly believable. I loved that Maitland showed a part of the Middle Ages that I'd never thought much of before. The beguines, given the time and the attitudes of many people at that time, seem like a miracle of modernity. This was a very interesting read and I'm curious to see what Maitland comes up with next.

6.07.2010

Breathers, by S.G. Browne

Breathers
Breathers
I've read a lot of zombie books and watched a lot of zombie movies, but this is the first time I've heard the zombie's side of the story. S.G. Browne's Breathers: A Zombie's Lament follows Andy, a recently resurrected zombie as he tries to figure out why he's alive (read: undead) and what his purpose is. As I read, I thought that this book was a horror novel with aspirations to be a literary novel. While there's a lot more action that I've come to expect from literary novels, there's as much introspection and pensiveness. And, of course, there is no happy ending.

The book actually begins somewhere near the end, when Andy wakes from a drunken binge to realize that his parents are dead. The perspective then shifts back a number of weeks and we meet Andy again as he goes to an Undead Anonymous meeting, to therapy sessions with a particularly clueless psychologist, and passive aggressively spars with his unhappy parents. We learn that Breathers (people still alive) treat zombies with contempt. Frat boys are a particular danger, and several zombies meet their end at their hands.

The action really starts to take off when Andy and his cadre discover the joys of snacking on Breathers. Andy discovers a little will and starts to agitate for zombie rights. He stands on corners with signs and tries to ride a bus (zombies are banned from public transportation). After an unfortunate incident at the Social Security office to try and get his number reinstated, Andy gets shot by a security guard and lands back in the zombie holding pen at the local SPCA. (Yes, Animal Control rounds up loose zombies.) His friends call in the media and all of a sudden, it looks like Andy might get the legal rights he wanted in the first place.

Meanwhile, all the zombies are snacking on homeless people and troublesome Breathers.

Unfortunately, even thought there's more action in the second half, the narrative gets more and more unfocused. It seems like Andy becomes more and more a mouthpiece for the author to comment on racism (vitalism), civil rights, and the media--all while trying to keep the body count high.

Breathers is a very strange read. I'm not sure I'd recommend it to any but the most die-hard, must-read-everything zombie fans or to people who like their literary fiction more than a little off kilter.

6.06.2010

Jurassic Park and The Lost World, by Michael Crichton

After reading this post on Cracked.com, I had a wicked urge to read Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton again. And, of course, if you read Jurassic Park, you have to read The Lost World--if only for the dinosaurs.

Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park
Jurassic Park, I've always thought, was a modern Faust story, but with dinosaurs. With all the philosophizing and cautioning from Ian Malcolm, the chaos mathematician. Most people, I'm sure, have seen the movie. But the book is a lot different; I like it a lot better. It's a lot scarier for one. Instead of a handful of Velociraptors, there are almost 40 of them in the book. They're bloody everywhere.

As most people know, the action starts when the security systems start to fail due to the efforts of a disgruntled computer tech and some serious delusions about how dangerous the dinosaurs are. From that point, there are chases, close escapes, lots of deaths, and non-stop action right until the end.

The only pauses come when Crichton uses the injured and drugged out Ian Malcolm to get his points about science across. Because the park owners and technicians are trying to recreate extinct creatures, Malcolm believes that the park is destined to fail spectacularly. After Malcolm gets attacked by one of the Tyrannosaurs and is doped up on morphine until they can get off the island, every time he appears on stage, he goes off about how stupid Hammond (the owner) and the rest are. They don't know how to care for the animals. More importantly, they don't know what the animals are capable of. They believe in the infallibility of their systems. And, according to Malcolm, they don't know how to use the technology they've discovered. This is where my Faust theory comes into play. One of the things the Faust story is about is the misuse of new knowledge. Ethics always runs behind scientific discover and because Hammond and the crew are more concerned about making money than anything else, they never stop to ask if they should have recreated dinosaurs.

I've had a copy of Jurassic Park since junior high and I take it out and reread it every few years because it has almost everything I look for in a great book. Intellectual puzzles. Dinosaurs. Action. Deep thoughts. Suspense. It's a fantastic book. Even though it's been more than 20 years since it was written, it still holds up.

Lost World
The Lost World
The Lost World is Crichton's follow up to Jurassic Park. It, too, features a drugged up Malcolm spouting off about his theories. But there are more dinosaur species and more chases and narrow escapes. Not as many people die, but it's still a suspenseful read. The movie sequel is a bit different than this book. Unbeknownst to the survivors of the first book, Hammond had a second site where he was breeding dinosaurs. In order to get healthy adults, Hammond's people created hundreds and hundreds of eggs. After the events of Jurassic Park, the company collapsed and Site B was abandoned. But the dinosaurs were left behind.

Reading The Lost World, I got the same feeling of frustration that I had with the company scientists in the first book, playing around with and observing the dinosaurs with little thought to the danger everyone was in. You just want to smack them on the head and shout and them to get the hell off the island before anyone else gets eaten. This goes double for Lew Dodgson, a geneticist who was partly responsible for things going to hell last time by tempting the disgruntled employee who tanked the computers at the park. He's still obsessed with getting his hands on dinosaurs. As soon as he arrives on the island, he proceeds to piss off the Tyrannosaurs. Just like last time, panic ensues.

The best part of the book is the animal behaviorist Sarah Harding. I love Crichton's strong, smart female characters. Most of the time, it seems that the women in the books are the only one's with their heads screwed on correctly.

While The Lost World is not quite as good Jurassic Park, it's still a great modern cautionary tale. Just like Frankenstein, they teach us that what is dead really ought to stay dead. If you can't follow that part, then leave dinosaurs the hell alone.

The Deadly Dinner Party, by Jonathan A. Edlow, M.D.

Deadly Dinner Party
The Deadly Dinner Party
I've been a fan of House, M.D. for a long time now, so when a book about medical mysteries popped up at the library, I just had to read it. While there's not as much drama as House has, The Deadly Dinner Party and Other Medical Detective Stories is, if not an enjoyable read, certainly a fascinating one. And I couldn't say enjoyable because read all the accounts of food poisoning might make you fearful of everything in your fridge.

Edlow's short tales start with a patient or more who come down with a mysterious but dangerous set of symptoms. Tests are run, but there's always some detective work needed to track down the cause of the infection, whether it's a cider press that didn't pasteurize their cider or a local dairy that was putting way too much vitamin D in their milk.

There are some very length tangents into medical history in the middle--sometimes more than one--where Edlow tells you more than you ever wanted to know about, say, botulism or the hepatic vein. Edlow's depth of knowledge is amazing. If you have the patience for it, this is a very interesting book.

The other thing I noticed about the stories was that some of them are a bit dated. The stories span the last 40 years, which makes me wonder how Edlow went about collecting his stories. As I read, it sounded like a bunch of doctors sitting around trying to top each other with the weirdest cases they'd ever had except with some of the medical jargon edited out. Still, I learned more (and from better sources) than I do from House.

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, by Steig Larsson

Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest
The Girl Who Kicked
the Hornet's Nest
Even though The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest is the last book there will ever be in this series by Stieg Larsson, I thought it was a great end. First, I was glad that it actually had an ending. The second book in the series, The Girl Who Played With Fire, didn't have one; it just lead right into the third. Second, and unusually for Larsson, it ends on a note of unadulterated hopefulness.

In The Girl Who Played With Fire, Lisbeth Salander (possibly the best character created in the last decade or more) confronted her father, a Russian defector who was protected by the state Security Police. She sustained such terrible injuries that, if this hadn't been a work of fiction, she would have died. Consequently, she spends the first half of the book in a hospital. Larsson manages to keep the tension level high throughout by switching his perspective between two opposing forces: Salander's friends and Salander's enemies.

Mikael Blomqvist, the investigative journalist who was the main protagonist of the first book before Lisbeth stole the show, marshals Salander's friends together because he knows that there's no way she's going to get a fair trial. As a joke, he names their group the Knights of the Idiotic Table, because the person they're trying to protect is so pig-headed.

On the other side are the security agents who believe that if Salander walks free, everything they've been trying to keep secret will come out and that they'll all serve fat jail sentences. Which is true, because in their zeal to weed out communists and enemies of the state, they broke a lot of laws. Since they're still working for the government, they have a lot of power. Documents disappear, are stolen, or are forged. Prosecutors are manipulated. Evidence is planted. Just when Blomqvist and his allies get ahead, the Sapo (Security Police) knock them back again.

Throughout the book, these two forces wrestle back and forth. Lisbeth, who refuses to speak to the police and the psychiatrists, has her own plans, too. She doesn't seem too worried about the possibility of jail time. She's after revenge, something she does best. After the gore of the second book, it was kind of refreshing to get back to the brainy investigation and double-crossing of the first book.

Everything comes together at the end and it is very satisfying to see everyone getting what they deserved. There were a few times when I doubted the Knights ability to get Salander vindicated. And oh there were some real villains in this book. Those Sapo agents had no scruples about what they'd do. Things look very grim for Lisbeth for a lot of the book.

One thing I didn't totally understand was Larsson's characters harping on about the constitution all the time. Whenever someone mentioned that if the Sapo's secrets come out, it could mean the end of their agency and they freak out about a "constitutional crisis." I don't know much about how the Swedish government is constructed. I think it's similar to the British system. Every time someone mentioned the constitution, I thought about what might have happened if the story had played out in the United States. There would have been some hearings. Some people might have spent some time in jail. But no one would have been as worried about the constitution as the Swedes were.

I've read that Larsson had plans for more books after these three. I would have loved to have seen them, because Lisbeth and Mikael are so fascinating to watch. And really, these are some of the best mystery/thrillers I've read in a long time. It's such a shame that Larsson died before he got a chance to see how wildly popular these books became.