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Musing on Books
by Michelle West

Shadows, by Robin McKinley, Nancy Paulsen Books, 2013, $18.99.

S, by J. J. Abrams & Doug Dorst, Mulholland Books, 2013, $21.

The Kindred of Darkness, by Barbara Hambly, Severn House, 2014, $28.95.

Fabbles: 1, by Hal Duncan, New Sodom Press, 2013, £6.

 
I FIRST encountered Robin McKinley's work as a teen, when I picked up the paperback of Beauty. Beauty and the Beast is my favorite fairytale ever, and I adored that book, and the minute I finished it I got back on the subway and headed down to the bookstore and fervently demanded everything else she had ever written.

"You're holding it."

Because I was an avid, teenage reader, my disappointment was probably palpable. I am not that same reader now; many years have passed between the first time I opened the covers of Beauty and the first time I opened the covers of Shadows, her latest.

But when I started reading Shadows, I felt like I'd come home.

It's not often I can connect with a novel the way I could as a teenager; too much water under that bridge. (When people demand that readers develop taste and discernment, I'm fine with that—but I want, also, to say that books aren't medicine or vitamins or physical fitness regimens, and if we can read with the same open vulnerability we could when we first started reading, why destroy that? Expand, certainly; read more, read other, yes. But if you can retain the joy and connection to works you loved as a young reader, why lose it? You are just cutting yourself off from something that you loved, which seems to mean less joy. But I digress.)

Maggie's father was killed by a drunk driver when Maggie was young, and this shattered her family. Her mother worked three jobs trying to make ends meet; Maggie became responsible for her younger brother. But the three jobs became, eventually, one job, and the family picked up the pieces of life and tried to knit them together again. And they've succeeded.

Then, Maggie's mother started dating. This was kind of awkward, but it didn't really go anywhere. Maggie's met a few of her mother's prospective boyfriends—but on neutral ground (a restaurant, for instance). For some reason, Maggie's mother has invited the new boyfriend to dinner at the family house for the first introduction, and Maggie's not thrilled with this.

She is even less thrilled when she meets Val, an immigrant from Oldworld. Maggie frets at how ditzy her mother seems to be while making dinner and cleaning the house, and it's Maggie who answers the door when Val shows up. Val appears to have brought a veritable army of disgusting and inhuman shadows with him. The fact that he's short, hairy, and has the worst clothing taste in the history of ever is almost a secondary concern: the shadows are creepy, and they disturb Maggie.

Since he's creepy and unacceptable to Maggie, it's no surprise to her when her mother marries him. She loves her mother and she wants her mother to be happy—almost as much as she wants to avoid any contact with Val, the new occupant of the house. Maggie has friends—Julie and Takahiro. She has school (they're all in high school), and she has her job at the animal shelter. She also has a dog that needs walking. She has a ton of decent excuses to avoid her mother's new husband.

But Val's shadows don't go away; they get worse.

Although this book is contemporary in tone, Shadows doesn't take place in our world. Maggie and her family live in Newworld. In Newworld, magic is illegal. A few generations back, the scientists figured out how to splice out the genes responsible for magic. The only place where magic is discussed is the university—and most of the Newworld students avoid any subjects that have anything to do with it.

But magic is not gone entirely. The reason Newworld exists at all is because every world in existence suffers from unpredictable, magical rifts that open in the fabric of reality itself. In Oldworld, the rifts are frequent and dangerous; people die, disappear, and go insane.

People believed it was the existence of magic that created these rifts, and they wanted a world in which they, and their children, could be safe. Which is why Newworld exists.

Maggie is the granddaughter of a very famous witch. She has no magic herself—or so she believes—because she believes no one does. But that belief is about to be tested in fairly major ways.

I know this book wasn't written with me in mind—but it might as well have been. First: it deals with the repercussions of death, loss, and grief; with Maggie's ambivalence to change and her desire to protect what her family has managed, with time, to rebuild. Second: It has Mongo, Maggie's dog. Maggie actually knows how to deal with dogs, and very realistically. Third: Maggie's best friend Julie is an actual friend, not a kind of plot coupon. They don't always agree on everything, but they always manage to be there for each other. Fourth: when the love interest is introduced and the list of his incredibly attractive attributes appears, there is actually one that appeals to me, which happens almost never. And fifth: the love interest part of the plot takes a left turn for reasons that also work for me across the board. There is also origami.

Yes, this is a book in which magic is prominent and the world isn't ours and therefore isn't real—but while reading it, it felt real to me. Everything about the characters made sense.

If I had to live in a fantasy universe—and while I like to read about them, living in them generally has no appeal—I would want to live in one that McKinley created.

 

S. was, according to the back of the box containing the novel, "conceived by filmmaker J. J. Abrams and written by award-winning novelist Doug Dorst."

The book inside the box—the box itself is the only thing that bears the title "S."—is Ship of Theseus, authored by V. M. Straka. There's also an old-fashioned library sticker on the spine. The copyright page—the only one in the book—is by V. M. Straka & F. X. Caldeira, in 1949.

Before we reach the copyright page, we hit the title page. "Ship of Theseus" is surrounded by paragraphs of handwritten text—two lines in block cap pencil, blue ballpoint cursive ink and black block caps. The blue cursive writer signs her name as Jen; the black block caps writer doesn't sign his name at all (I don't consider it a spoiler to say his name is Eric, because the back of the box makes this clear).

The book belongs to Eric. He left it in the library where Jen works; she picked it up and noticed all of the writing in the margins. Since she considers the book already defaced (one assumes), she leaves him a note. Or several. He replies. Frequently.

Their notes pull the reader to the introduction written by Caldeira, the translator, who writes of the mystery of Straka's real-life identity, the various people who've been assumed to have been Straka, and Caldeira's own sense of the importance of Straka's work. In this section, the first of the extra-novel pieces appears: a photocopy of a letter, written by Straka to a filmmaker, both in the original German and the translated English, which Eric leaves for Jen.

There are numerous bits and pieces that have been placed between the pages of Ship of Theseus—letters, postcards, newspaper clippings, photos. I both loved them and found them difficult, because it's hard to read the actual novel without bits and pieces falling out. Their placement isn't accidental.

I was drawn into reading via the margin notes and the interaction between Jen and Eric; Jen is new to Straka, having never read him; Eric intended to base his life on the study of Straka's works, and the question of his identity. Who was V. M. Straka? There are suppositions and theories and papers and presentations—all mentioned in Eric's various notes—but no proof. As when reading Nick Bantock's Griffin & Sabine, there's something slightly voyeuristic about reading these private messages and notes.

Unlike Bantock's work, the foundation for the correspondence is an actual novel. Jen and Eric aren't artists; they're readers who meet over the mystery and promise of a book they both love.

Ship of Theseus was Straka's final novel; it was published posthumously. It could be considered horror, fantasy, or very heavy-handed allegory. Eric refers Jen to various other novels by Straka as they continue to communicate in the margins, and Jen comes back with comments about Straka's oeuvre.

Both come to believe that the book was published in part because Caldeira wished to reach out to Straka. But they don't know what Caldeira was trying to say.

And so, on to the book itself. The presentation of the book, the typeface chosen, the layout and placement of headers and page numbers, implies age. The text does, as well. The writing is not contemporary in tone. If the only thing offered were the novel itself, pages unadorned with either marginalia or inserts, I don't think it would stand well on its own; it's a bit top-heavy in philosophical/metaphorical imagery, which feels overdone in places; the end is abrupt and unsatisfactory in and of itself—although I suspect that effect is intentional.

The titular character of the project, S, drags himself out of the water in the harbor of an unnamed city. He has no memory of how he ended up in the water. He has, in fact, no memory. He doesn't know his own name, has no idea where he's been, and has no idea where he's supposed to go. There is a piece of paper in his pocket with a single letter written on it: S.

He wanders until he sees an S outside of a bar, and he enters. There he sees a woman who catches his attention; she is reading a thick book, and appears to be waiting for someone. He approaches her; he can't tell if she recognizes him or not. They don't get much of a chance to converse, because he's grabbed from behind, drugged, and carried away.

He wakes in a small cabin on a ship. He knows about ships, and he knows this is a good one. But it's crewed by exhausted wretches; none speak. The captain of the ship does. Neither the captain nor the ship have a name, which is fitting, as S doesn't either.

But this ship is destined to be his home. He escapes it once, returning to the world in search of the woman he met in the bar, and becomes embroiled in a strike at the factory of Vevoda; he falls in with the people who organized the strike, and sees them vilified and hunted. And he sees most of them die, before the ship returns to rescue him and carry him away.

These deaths will define everything he does in the future. The cause of the fallen will become his cause. But every time he returns to land, he searches for the woman he calls Sola, because he believes she holds the key to his identity.

Identity is the mystery of Ship of Theseus, the title an allusion to Theseus's paradox: "The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their place, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same."

Identity is the question Jen and Eric ask—of each other, and of Straka himself. They look at the footnotes, the introduction, and the material added by the translator, and they attempt to discern what message the translator was trying to send, and as they do, they grow closer.

But they're not the only people interested in solving this mystery. And they discover, the hard way, that there are forces who discourage any investigation into the history of V. M. Straka himself.

Jen is pitch-perfect for a college student of her age. Eric is more reserved, and his interest in Straka so personal, it takes longer to get a clear read on who he is. But their interaction, their slowly growing interest in each other, their attempts to meet (well, Jen's attempts to meet with him) and the shift in the tone of their interaction after they have is striking. I believed in them. I believed in their growing attachment to each other.

Ship of Theseus itself seems to be written to, or for, Caldeira. Caldeira's footnotes are definitely written to Straka—but there's no certain sense, as there is with Eric and Jen, that what's written will reach its audience, or even be understood. Caldeira says in the introduction that Straka didn't finish the book; he wanted to speak with Caldeira in person before he penned the last few lines.

And it's clear by the end of the entire project what he intended to say, and it ties in neatly with the present day.

I don't recommend this book for people who are looking for a strong narrative; it's almost impossible to read the novel that lies beneath the marginalia without reading the marginalia, because the eye is drawn by underlines and markers to the notes that adorn them. But there's something about the chaotic jumble of novel, letters, footnotes, and personal marginalia that I found compelling, and if you like codes and puzzles, there are a few that Jen and Eric don't solve on their own.

 

I didn't know that Barbara Hambly had continued her vampire novels; Those Who Hunt the Night and Traveling with the Dead are the only two I've previously read, and I adored them. I found her vampires exactly the right blend of inhuman predators, with echoes of memories and attachments to elements of the lives they once lived.

Kindred of Darkness is apparently the fifth of the James Asher/Lydia novels. I haven't read Blood Maidens or Magistrates from Hell, because, sadly, I've only just learned of them. I will, of course, be reading them soon.

But Kindred of Darkness can be read without reading the two books that precede it. I was happy to return to James Asher, now retired from His Majesty's Service, and his wife, Lydia, who has been dragooned into escorting her unmarried younger cousin to gatherings in which she might meet a suitable husband.

The events take place entirely in and around London, in 1913. Hambly's writing and her ability to evoke a sense of place are, for me, as strong as they were when the first James Asher book appeared in 1988. Lydia's position in society has not notably improved since she has taken up the medical profession, but she's made peace with that. James is out of town at an academic conference—or so he's said; she's concerned that he might be doing the more risky work from which he retired, but she has no control over what he does when he's not at home.

Nor does she have any control of what the vampires of London will do, regardless.

Grippen, the Master Vampire of London, needs Lydia's aid. There's a new Vampire in London, and unlike Grippen and his nest, he's been eating a handful of people every week. That kind of deathcount is going to attract notice, and it's not the notice that Grippen—or any Vampire—wants. But Grippen's been looking, and the vampire is nowhere to be found. And he knows Lydia can find him.

He also knows Lydia's not likely to volunteer, and in order to persuade her, he kidnaps her daughter, Miranda. He promises to release Miranda if—and when—Lydia does as he asks.

Lydia summons James home. And she summons Don Simon Ysidro.

I found this book harder to read than the first two—which has nothing at all to do with the writing, and everything to do with the viewpoints: James and Lydia are both parents, and their daughter is in the hands of vampires. They know what her chances of survival are. Because they're the viewpoints, it's easy for the reader to slide behind the visceral fear of losing a child; I know this one intimately. It almost kills James, at one point.

But Hambly's vampire books have never been cheerful comfort books. They are absorbing, atmospheric, compelling books, and I really look forward to seeing where she takes the characters in future.

 

Hal Duncan is one of a handful of authors whose writing always engages me. I saw mention of a chapbook he's publishing through New Sodom Press, with the elevator pitch "if David Cronenberg remade Oliver! on a script from Clive Barker … and kept the songs," and I immediately raised my hand and did the "Me! Me! Me!" dance of pure reader avarice.

Fabbles: 1 is a collection of three stories set in the universe of the Scruffians. In this Steampunk/Dickens pastiche (the pitch really does give a feel for the tone of this world), it's cheap child labor with a twist: the downtrodden can be "fixed." A process in the Institute turns them into immortals. They can't be killed. They can be hurt, but even lopped off limbs grow back in time. Everything they were when they were stamped remains exactly as it was: even hunger.

Fabbles are fibs, babbles—the stories the Scruffians tell to each other, and to the newcomers. As such, they're oral stories, in print; you can hear the cadence of the teller. They're meant to be read out loud (which is how I read them the second time).

The first of these stories is a Christmas story, set in a workhouse. It's short, and sweet, if by sweet you mean dark and demented.

The second, "Beast of Buskerville," introduces the Waiftaker General, who's pretty much what his name implies: He's responsible for the Institute that turns out the Fixed for sale to those who want the cheapest of labor—after all, you don't even have to feed them, they don't take sick, and they can't die. Unless they're Scrubbed—and that, only the Institute can do. He hunts the Scruffians in his spare time, because they're escapees; they've tweaked the stamp, and they're free. And that's just bad business.

But he's got a pressing problem. There's a dog. It's been killed dozens of times—but it won't stay dead, and he knows what that means: the dog's Fixed. He's been stamped. Waiftaker's got a squad of men, and knows how to find the beast. But when the Scruffians are about, things don't always go the way they're planned.

The last of the three stories—and the longest—is about the "Taking of the Stamp." I think this has appeared in ebook before, but not in print. The title pretty much says it all. This is easily the most violent of the three, and the most complicated.

There is a manic energy to these stories, with their over-the-top violence and down-in-the-gutter language; they have energy and verve and I want to call them almost perky dark horror. Which, as I said, matches the elevator pitch almost to a T.

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