12.16.2012

The Raven's Seal, by Andrei Baltakmens

The Raven's Seal
Andrei Baltakmens' The Raven's Seal is an amazing work of historical mystery set in fictional city of Airenchester, England in 1776. Baltakmens has an incredible gift for writing in period English without bogging it down with either unnecessary Dickensian bluster or anachronisms. Even if the plot weren't great (which it is), it would be a treat to read this book just for the language Baltakmens uses. 

We meet out protagonist, Thaddeus Grainger, just as he is about to make his exit from a society dance and head for his favorite pub. At this point in the novel, Grainger is not a very nice person. He is not quite as awful as the other people in his social circle, but he's still a bit of a rake and he certainly doesn't take things as seriously as he should. Shortly after the book opens, Grainger challenges another gentleman (not in the literal sense of the word) to a duel over Cassandra Redruth, a poor girl who was pawed while trying to look for her brother in the pub where Grainger and Massingham were (separately) whiling away an evening. The duel doesn't go well for Grainger, though he isn't fatally wounded. Massingham goes off to celebrate. The next thing anyone knows, Grainger is arrested for Massingham's murder.

Nothing goes Grainger's way, as witnesses come forward to condemn him. He barely escapes the noose and is sentenced to Bellstrom Prison, a "gaol [that] provided a college for villainy, wherein its doctors in crime graduated to that most thorough and relentless examiner, the noose" (202*) You'd expect such a naive and unworldly man as Grainger to shortly get the dog snot beaten out of him, but he manages to make some allies among the older prisoners who tutor him in how to get along. Grainger, along with his friend William Quillby and Cassie Redruth, strive to gather evidence showing the Grainger was framed. As time passes, it becomes clear that Grainger's imprisonment is but a small part of a colossal conspiracy that takes in pretty much all crime and fraud in and around Airenchester. All signs point back to a mysterious figure known by his sign, a raven's foot in a seal of black wax, and Bellstrom Prison.

Baltakmens did mountains of research about this period in England's history, especially regarding the penal system of the time. But he has a remarkably light touch with exposition. You get a clear sense of the wretched conditions of the prisoners who could not afford the prison warden's "garnish"--fees for better rooms, food, etc. You also get a close look at the sharp divide between the "respectable" wealthy and the poor. If you have money, it seems like you can get away with just about anything. But if you're poor or don't play by the rules set up by the wealthy, well, you're in for a world of injustice.

I very much look forward to more from Baltakmens. This is easily my favorite book of the year.

* Quote is from the 2012 kindle edition, published by Top Five Books, LLC.

The Damnation Affair, by Lilith Saintcrow

I received an ebook copy of Saintcrow's The Damnation Affair as a prepub from Netgalley.com

The Damnation Affair
Lilith Saintcrow's The Damnation Affair is a standalone entry in the author's alternate history/steampunk Bannon and Clare series. You really don't need to read the first book, though you might want to in order to get a better handle on the curious world Saintcrow created.

Our heroine is Catherine Barrowe-Browne, a Boston society girl who takes up a post as schoolmarm in a town called Damnation in order to tack down her wayward brother. As soon as she arrives in the desolate town, she strikes the fancy of good guy Jack Gabriel, the town's sheriff. So far, the story is pretty much par for the course. But then the zombies turn up. As Catherine tries to find her brother, Gabriel keeps the town safe from zombie incursions and investigates a curious occurrence in the mountains around Damnation. It seems that someone (it doesn't take much of an effort to work out who) woke up something evil and hungry while trying to find gold. As the town's positions gets more and more dicey, the plot works up to a very interesting plot twist near the end that changes how you see Catherine and Jack.

Even though the setting remains a little vague and the characters a little shallow, this is a fun read. I really enjoyed the twist; I really was not expecting what happened. And I am very curious to see what happens to these characters next, if Saintcrow works them into the main series as I expect she will.

Cinder, by Marissa Meyer

This book--more specifically, the ending of this book--is going to piss off a lot of readers. I just wanted to get that out there before I carry on with the rest of my review of Marissa Meyer's Cinder.

Cinder
Cinder is, as expected, a retelling of the Cinderella story. In Meyer's version, the retelling includes magical people who live on the moon, androids and cyborgs, a deadly plague, references to a World War IV, and an evil alien queen. It's amazing what Meyer crams into a surprisingly small amount of exposition. In this version, our putative Cinderella is a mechanic living in New Beijing. She's also a cyborg. She has an uncaring stepmother and one stereotypical stepsister. (The other stepsister is a very nice person.) Because she has a reputation as a very good mechanic, she gets a commission to repair an android by the incognito prince. And, of course, there's a ball.

But in including all those fantastical and science fiction elements, getting Cinder to the ball is a lot more complicated than it was in the original fairy tale. First, Cinder gets drafted into the search for a cure to the aforementioned deadly plague. Then she and the prince start to fall in love with each other. Then the stepmother steals Cinder's biomechanical foot...and there's no fairy godmother to help Cinder out of her predicaments.

It's a fascinating read. And I really enjoyed it...right up until the end. Well, I say ending. This book ends, I'll be blunt about it, with a cliffhanger. And now I have to wait for the next book in the series to come out in February to find out what happens to our plucky heroine. Readers, if the above description of the book sounded good to you, wait for the next entry in the series to come out.

12.09.2012

Under Western Eyes, by Joseph Conrad

Under Western Eyes
Joseph Conrad's Under Western Eyes is a deeply cynical look at revolution in the early twentieth century. Hardly a chapter passes without one narrators of this book making a pointed observation about dilettantes or poseurs or the naive. And since this book was published in 1911, a lot of these remarks about revolution seem strangely prescient in light of what happened in Russia only a few years later. For example, Conrad writes:
The last thing I want to tell you is this: in a real revolution...the best characters do not come to the front. A violent revolution falls into the hands of narrow-minded fanatics and tyrannical hypocrites at first. Afterwards comes the turn of all the pretentious intellectual failures of the time...The scrupulous and the just, the noble, humane, and devoted natures; the unselfish and the intelligent may begin a movement--but it passes away from them. They are not the leaders of a revolution. They are its victims. (Part Second, Chapter III*)
The novel revolves around the unfortunate protagonist, Kirylo Razumov, who finds himself tangled up with would be revolutionaries after a bomb-wielding murderer decides that Razumov would be the perfect person to shelter him after blowing up a judge.

Just the fact that Haldin chose Razumov to provide a refuge implicates Razumov in the eyes of the authorities, even though Razumov never involved himself in revolutionary activities. He's an average student. His greatest ambition is to win an essay competition and, hopefully, a government post. He has no family to help advance him, so he's pretty much up a creek when Haldin shows up. There's something about Razumov that invites people to share their secrets and ideas. It drives Razumov nuts, to be frank. Haldin asks Razumov to help him escape the city. Razumov tries, but the man Haldin hoped would drive him away turns out to be a fall down drunk. Anxiety drives Razumov to his only option: turning Haldin in. It's the right thing to do, but Razumov tortures himself with feelings of guilt and worries to distraction about being arrested in spite of everything.

Instead of being arrested, however, the police draw Razumov into their plots and send him abroad to spy on revolutionaries in Germany and Switzerland. Razumov fetches up in Geneva, where Haldin's sister and mother now live. He has extraordinary luck in his new job. Because he is reserved and remains silent while the revolutionaries rant and bluster, his targets think that Razumov is a man of action, not words. They fill in the blanks with what they want to believe about him. As I read, it occurred to me that Razumov wouldn't last five minutes trying to infiltrate a terrorist organization in our time.

Razumov manages to pull his mission mostly because of the idiocy of his targets. In the end, he is undone by his own sense of guilt once he meets Haldin's sister. She's a forthright young woman, easily one of the best people in this book. He can't bear to lie to her. In the end, he confesses everything--not just to Miss Haldin--but also to the revolutionaries he was spying on. This goes about as well as you'd expect, and Razumov ends up a deaf cripple.

Under Western Eyes ends in an emotional tangle. There are no winners or losers. There's a clear sense of life--and the revolution--carrying on after Razumov is injured and Miss Haldin returns to Russia. It's really the only way that this book could end, after all the cynicism and observations that that revolutionaries don't accomplish much for all their talking. In the end, Razumov and all the other characters are just pawns on the board.

* I read the Project Gutenberg edition, so the page numbers change depending on font size, screen orientation, etc.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

11/22/63
Time travel novels always bring up fascinating questions. Can one person change history? Can history be changed at all? Should you meddle if you have the opportunity? Are there multiple timelines out there? Stephen King's 11/22/63 asks all of these questions. For some inexplicable reason, a hole in time has appeared in the pantry of a diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine. The owner of that diner, Al, has been taking trips back to 1958 to get cheap food to sell (at such low prices that the locals make jokes about catburgers). Eventually, Al decides that he's going to use the portal to do something more worthwhile than buy supplies. Since the portal always takes him to September of 1958, he decides that he's going to stay until 1963 and stop Lee Harvey Oswald from assassinating John Kennedy.

But when Al develops terminal cancer, he drafts his friend Jake into taking on the mission in his stead. This book is huge, but a lot of it spent--not on Oswald--but actually on Jake's life in the past. Once he's proved to himself that changes in the past can actually alter the future (Jake's present), he believes Al in that it might be possible to save Kennedy. Al figures that Kennedy, if he had lived, would have kept the Vietnam War from becoming a war in the first place. Al thinks that November 22, 1963 is a turning point. By saving Kennedy, the world would be a better place and they would be saving millions of lives. Jake also signs on to save one of his adult education students from a horrific attack on the student's family by their father.

Once Jake stops the father from murdering his family and giving the survivor a traumatic brain injury, he heads for Texas. Al did a lot of the research and Jake is able to keep fairly close tabs on Oswald as the assassin returns from Russia, wanders around Texas and Louisiana, and plots to murder the president. Now, if this had been the main plot, I think this would have been a better book. Instead, we get Jake's story as he makes a life in Jodie, Texas and falls in love with a divorcee with a psycho ex-husband. In fairness, this would have been an interesting story, too. But when you stack it up against the Oswald plot, it falls short. It reads as though Jake is wasting his time. With all of the research Al did and all of the forensic investigations after the fact, there's little doubt that Oswald did it. So it's curious that Jake gives him the benefit of the doubt for so long. Jake does a little snooping around the people in Oswald's life to see if anyone put him up to it, perhaps because of the long standing conspiracies about the Grassy Knoll and a possible second shooter.

But then the narrative heads back to Jodie and Jake saves his girlfriend from the aforementioned psycho, and Jake spends a few pages working out how to bring Sadie to the future to help fix the scar she received from her ex-husband. Finally, Jake manages to focus on what he actually set out to do. After missing an early opportunity to take out Oswald, it all comes down to stopping him on November 22. This part of the book is just as tense as one could wish and comes off fantastically. The rest of the book, except for the early parts where Jake prevents local tragedies in Maine, is a slog in comparison. After becoming a national hero, Jake returns to his own time to discover that things actually got much, much worse.

And thus, the questions. Even though this book could use some serious editing, it does make you think about not only whether it's a good idea to meddle if you have the opportunity. But that leads to the other question, is what happened what was meant to happen? Of course, whatever timeline you're in is the "real" one to you. If nothing else, 11/22/63 shows that our world could always be worse. It's not possible for Jake to keep fixing things, because he'd have to keep reliving the 1960s over and over again until he died as he dealt with the consequences of his changes. There would always be the risk of making things worse. Since he's mucking around in the cold war, worse includes nuclear annihilation.

While this isn't the best example of alternate history (I wasn't kidding about the editing thing), this is still a very interesting read.

12.02.2012

Albert of Adelaide, by Howard L. Anderson

Albert of Adelaide
Howard L. Anderson's Albert of Adelaide is a highly entertaining Australian Western, with animals as characters (sort of like Rango or Brian Jacques' series, but not G-rated). The main character, Albert, a platypus on the lam from the Adelaide zoo, escapes and sets out north in search of Old Australia.

We meet Albert in the great Australian desert, out of water and sunburnt. Luckily, he runs into Jack (a wombat) who has been wandering the desert for years. Jack takes Albert under his wing and starts to show him how to live in the outback. Jack takes him to Ponsby Station, a rough and tumble mining town run by kangaroos and populated by bandicoots and wallabies. It quickly becomes clear that Albert is the sort of character that things just happen to. Once in Ponsby, Albert finds himself accused of cheating, fighting, and suspect in an arson.

As if that weren't bad enough, Jack decides to part ways with Albert. Without a mentor, Albert falls in with a bandit raccoon named TJ (an American transplant). Before he knows it, Albert is named the leader of the notorious Platypus Gang though no fault of his own. Albert and his allies end up facing a small army lead by the villainous Bertram (a wallaby) and Theodore (an opossum).

This book runs the gamut from Western to comedy to tragedy to farce to epic in a surprisingly short span. It's told in deceptively simple language and flies by. I really enjoyed reading this book. It was a delight.

The Twelve, by Justin Cronin

The Twelve
I'd read the mix reviews of Justin Cronin's The Twelve, but when I read the book myself, I though the critics had been a little too harsh to this continuation of The Passage. Sure, it has it's problems, but I was completely hooked.

First, the good: Cronin seems to have shaken off some of the overly literary modes of writing that made parts of The Passage drag the story to a near halt. There is a lot more action in this book, a lot less maundering about this brave new world and what was lost. The Twelve is closer to a horror novel than its predecessor and there are several parts that were downright terrifying to read. We also get to see more of the vampire/zombie apocalypse that was mostly skipped over in The Passage. 

Aside from the lengthy flashback to year zero, the bulk of the book concerns Amy, Peter, and Alicia's continued hunt for the twelve--the original vampires. As they learned in the last book, killing one of the twelve means killing all of the millions of other vampires of their line. Unfortunately, the remaining eleven are scattered across the country, in hiding. Getting to one and managing to kill it takes a lot of luck and a lot of munitions. It all builds to a rather spectacular explosion at the end of the book.

We also get more than a few hints that there is something supernatural going on. You might ask, aren't vampires supernatural? In Cronin's version, they're the result of a virus. But characters like Amy start to hear the voices of the other vampires in their heads. There's one mysterious voice that starts moving the characters around like chess pieces. But on top of this, there's a strange force of serendipity at work in this novel. It's almost Dickens grade. Characters run into just the right people at the right time. Plans fall apart only to benefit other schemes. 

And now for the bad. The extensive flashback, though very interesting to read, is not well integrated into the rest of the book. It stops abruptly and isn't alluded to until much later in the book. Cronin is a better writer than this, I feel. So I was a little puzzled at how sloppily the flashback was put in.

I meant what I said when this book was better than the last book. The Passage was plagued by very long, very slow passages that killed all sense of narrative tension. This book doesn't have that. The only spanners in the work are that abrupt flashback and the conclusion. 

SPOILERS FOLLOW.

While the ending is a riot of action and suspense and ordinance, it seemed like a bit of a let down. For hundreds of pages, I'd been expecting a long, years' long slog tracking down the twelve. But then this start getting mystical and the twelve are called to a settlement in Iowa and then...it's all over in a big kaboom. There's one left, the original vampire, but all that wonderful drama and tension of these two books--the sense of danger that follows the characters everywhere--is gone. It seems like Cronin is clearing the board the for the last book, but I have no idea what he plans to do in it.

END SPOILERS