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November/December 2015
 
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Books To Look For
by Charles de Lint

 

Illuminae: The Illuminae Files 01, by Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff, Knopf, 2015, $18.99.

 
I WON'T swear to this, but I'm pretty sure that as far back as the first sf novel, authors have used various forms of ephemera in their stories: letters, telegrams, newspaper clipping, encyclopedia entries, interview transcripts. More recently emails, text messages, quotations from websites.

Adding in this material serves a number of purposes. Sometimes it simply lends weight to the proceedings—you know, with all this gathered material, the story must be real. Sometimes it's a way of dropping in an information dump in a way that doesn't feel quite as clunky as trying to insert it into the narrative or dialogue. And I'm sure sometimes authors do it just for the fun of it, to amuse themselves as well as—hopefully—their readers.

I'm pretty sure Illuminae is the first book composed solely of this sort of material. Or at least it's the first time I've come across it.

Let's talk about the positives first.

Illuminae is a terrific story featuring two well-defined and memorable lead characters in Kady Grant and Ezra Mason. A handful of others have some individuality, but most of the cast remain little more than names.

It begins on Kerenza, an ice-covered planet on the edge of nowhere that hosts an illegal mining colony. The year is 2575 and a couple of megacorporations are at war over the planet, but Kady and Ezra don't know anything about that until the day that Kady breaks up with Ezra at school. Kady's feeling pretty overwhelmed about the situation until one of those megacorporations (BeiTech) suddenly starts blasting the mining colony and then releases a bio-weapon.

It soon becomes apparent that BeiTech has no intention of leaving anyone alive and the pair become part of a mad dash to the spaceport to escape. Only three ships, laden with refugees, manage to get away from the battle above the planet: a science vessel, Hypatia, the heavy freighter Copernicus, and the battle carrier Alexander. In pursuit is the Biotech dreadnaught the Lincoln.

All the ships have been damaged in the battle, it's six months' travel to the nearest safety, and the Lincoln remains in pursuit. But there's a more immediate problem. The Alexander's Artificial Intelligence Defense Analytics Network (AIDAN), the AI program that basically runs the ship, has been damaged. No one knows how severely until AIDEN takes over command of armaments and destroys the Copernicus because the bio-weapon unleashed by BeiTech has infected many of the people on board and the Alexander's AI believes that they posed a threat to the safety of the rest of the fleet.

They manage to shut down AIDAN, but that leaves them helpless for when the Lincoln closes in. At some point they know they'll have to start AIDAN up again to get their defenses online, but the concern now is that the AI has gone insane.

Kay and Ezra are on separate ships, but the two of them begin to work toward a solution with the help of some allies, because the people in charge don't seem to know what to do. Kay—already a computer expert—resorts to hacking the various computer systems, first to find out what's going on, then to find a solution.

There's actually so much going on that it's difficult to sum it up in a way that conveys the intensity of the story. Suffice to say that this is a compelling thriller that doesn't let up on the reader's interest and the on-page action, all the way to a conclusion, both satisfying and surprising.

From the above it's obvious that I enjoyed Illuminae a great deal. I had no familiarity with the previous work of either Amie Kaufman or Jay Kristoff and was very taken with how much effort had to have gone into presenting a story in this manner. And how well they pulled it off.

But there's a downside to their choice of narrative style. Fascinating as all the material is—the transcripts, IM messages, surveillance camera logs—and how impressive the authors' attention to detail is, I'll have to admit that I found myself skimming sections. I just wanted the story to be told and found that the array of ephemera often kicked me out of the narrative. I'd catch myself thinking about how clever this all was, rather than being absorbed by the plight of the characters.

I suppose this sort of niggling complaint is always going to arise when writers push the envelope the way that Kaufman and Kristoff do here, but I often found myself wishing for a more traditional narrative, because the characters and plot deserved having nothing in the way of a reader connecting with them.

So I'm on the fence about the success of this experiment. It's fun to talk about afterward, and it's intriguing enough that when I showed the book to friends who don't even read sf, they were eager to acquire a copy for themselves. But this is only book one of a series, and if the next volume is presented in a similar fashion (as I'm sure it will be), I'm not certain I'll give it a try.

It's not that I'm unwilling to try something new. It's more that I wasn't convinced at the end of the day that Illuminae is anything more than a gimmick. A highly detailed and at times very absorbing gimmick, but a gimmick nonetheless.

I wanted to love this book—and I did love the main characters and how they faced the challenge of their predicament—but I was also frustrated by the delivery system of the story. There were too many times that I was completely absorbed, only to be jolted by the insertion of some memo or email, or a bit of extraneous data included for color.

 

*   *   *

 

Boundary Crossed, by Melissa F. Olson, 47North, 2015, $10.75.

 

I wasn't going to review Melissa F. Olson's latest book, since I've already reviewed a number of her titles in this column, and by now you pretty much know how much I like her work. So why am I writing about Boundary Crossed? Well, the column is called Books to Look For, and since this is easily one of my favorite books of the year so far, I really want you to go out and look for it.

From the first novel of hers I read (Dead Spot) I knew she was something special, and subsequent books have delivered on that promise. So much so that Olson's rapidly become one of a small handful of authors whose work immediately jumps to the top of my to-be-read pile as soon as it arrives in my house.

The reasons are simple. Of course her writing is good, her characters well drawn, and her plots the kind that keep you reading a chapter or two after you promised yourself you'd stop. But what I love is how she uses the tropes of urban fantasy (witches, vampires, werewolves) and injects just enough new concepts to make everything feel fresh. I like how the characters are adults—rather than angsty teenagers—and the relationships between them are realistic rather than overblown with improbabilities.

And I especially like that each of her books can be read on its own, while still connecting to a series of overall arcs.

Boundary Crossed starts a new arc. New characters, new location, but still wrapped up in the magic of her Old World mythology—Old World being what she calls the beings that live on the periphery of the world we know.

Dead Spot introduced us to Scarlett Bernard and the concept of a null, a person who nullifies all magic within a certain radius of where they are. This means that vampires and werewolves become human again, witches can't cast spells.

The new arc introduces us to U.S. Army Sergeant Allison "Lex" Luther. It opens with Lex working at a hardware depot when she spots a couple with a child she realizes is her niece, Charlie. Ever since the brutal murder of her twin sister in L.A., Lex has vowed to protect Charlie. It's the reason she moved back to her hometown of Boulder, Colorado. So she doesn't hesitate in taking on the pair and rescuing her niece.

In the process, she dies.

When she wakes up in the hospital (this would be the third time she's returned from death), she discovers that the kidnappers were vampires and her niece is a null, which makes the little girl a ready target for those who want to control Charlie's power. And that seems to be pretty much everybody in the supernatural world.

Lex knows she has no chance standing up to the whole of the Old World on her own, so she makes a deal with the local vampires. In return for them keeping Charlie safe, she basically becomes their foot soldier, and her first assignment is to find out who was responsible for Charlie's kidnapping. Accompanied by the vampires' "fixer"—the undead Quinn—she soon finds that the task is far from simple and is complicated by the mystery of who and what she is.

Ordinary people don't come back from the dead, and she's not a vampire. So what is she?

You'll find out if you read the book. I'm certainly not going to spoil it for you.

Melissa Olson is building up a terrific body of work with her Old World stories. Too often these days I find myself caught up with a book or two by what seems to be a promising author only to be disappointed because my interest isn't sustained. So it's real pleasure to have someone like Olson come along, keeping me interested in book after book, and leaving me looking forward to the next one.

Highly recommended.

 

*   *   *

 

The Art of Neil Gaiman, by Hayley Campbell, HarperDesign, 2014, $39.99

 

I like Neil Gaiman's work as much as the next person—maybe a little more—but I wasn't sure I'd like it enough to read all the way through this comprehensive biography by Hayley Campbell with its 320 oversized pages full of tiny type. Yes, there are lots of images as well: photos, manuscript pages, doodles—pretty much every sort of memorabilia one might associate with the life of a person of Gaiman's productivity and success in so many fields. But beyond the images, there's all that small type, and did I really need to know the minutiae of his life to appreciate his work?

I'm one of those people who believe that the work must stand on its own merits. When I delve into a book about an artist's life, or read an interview with them, what interests me is the creative process itself, rather than how meeting so-and-so when he was fifteen was the spark that led him to create some seminal work twenty years later.

But even as I write those words I realize that what I've just so flippantly described is exactly a part of the creative process. We don't make things out of nothing. Or rather we do, but the fuel required is the wealth of our experience and our level of expertise in our chosen expression of our creativity.

Everybody's life is a story. A work in progress, if they're still alive, but a story, nonetheless. The two kinds of stories readers want to read are those that describe an extraordinary life, or those in which the voice of the narrator is compelling.

Anyone who's read Gaiman or attended one of his events knows that he has a compelling voice. But he's not telling this story. Hayley Campbell is, and that could have been a problem if not for the fact that she's known Gaiman for years, she wrote the book with his full cooperation, having access to all his papers and memorabilia, and she did extensive interviews with him focusing on every part of his life and career.

So while she's in charge of the narrative, and utilizes quotes from many of the people in his life, what really makes the book shine is the generous helping of material in Gaiman's own voice taken from all those interviews that Campbell quotes, as well as the ones she conducted with him. And while he recalls a great deal of detail, he's also honest with what he doesn't remember:

"I remember a really bad night," he says at one point. "I never kept any kind of diaries back then so I have no idea when it was. I was twenty-one, maybe twenty-two."

And then he goes on to recount a pivotal moment in his writing career, the one that changed him from a young man who loved words to the man who wanted the world to read the stories he had to tell.

I always find it suspect when people can recall every moment in their lives with utter clarity. If every fact is detailed for us, I find myself wondering how much is made up. When the subject is honest about being unsure of some of those details, well, they might still be making things up, but I'm more willing to believe them.

The Art of Neil Gaiman is full of insights, anecdotes, and detail into the workings of the creative mind. Naturally it will appeal to those readers who love his work, but I think it's also a useful instructional tool for anyone interested in writing, full of gems that might be old hat to established writers but will be empowering to those just beginning to sharpen their craft. Such as:

"When you start a story," Gaiman says, "there are an infinite number of ways it can go. And that is the delight of it for me. When you get to the end there is one way that it had to go."

Or: "If you're writing a novel, you can be halfway through it or more before you know what it's about or how it's going to work. You get to the end and you realize how the end fits together, and you go back to chapter one and you plant all the clues that make it obvious how it's going to end."

The above quotes might horrify anyone who works strictly from an outline, or is trying to follow the formulas laid out in many instructional books on writing, but will be liberating to the new writer who is approaching their work more organically, a validation that the riskier method of telling a story is a viable option that can work out.

Earlier I said that reading the whole of this book might be too daunting a task. Once I started, it was a more a question of how could I not read it all since almost every page had something with weight and meaning. The day-to-day elements of Gaiman's life hold a certain interest, but it's how everything connects—life to art—that makes for such a fascinating journey through its pages.

When you combine the prose narrative with the wealth of illustrated material—photos, manuscript pages, sketches, doodles, finished art, and all—you realize just what a treasure trove this biography is.

Aspiring writers will take one of two things away from this book. The negative is that Gaiman's biography aptly shows how it's not simply talent that makes a success, but also a vast amount of luck. Of being in the right place at the right time. Because there are many hugely talented writers who miss that break and toil away in obscurity. The understanding of this can be a daunting proposition.

What I hope they'll take away is what makes Gaiman tick: "Punk still informs everything I do," he said in a 2011 interview. "You have to be willing to make mistakes, and you have to be willing to make mistakes in public. Sometimes the best way to learn something is by doing it wrong and looking back on what you did."

And to realize that being in the right place isn't necessarily only up to fate, because if you're not actively pursuing your goals, then you won't be prepared for the opportunity for success when it does present itself.

As The I Ching says: "Perseverance furthers." And: "It furthers one to have somewhere to go."

It's obvious from The Art of Neil Gaiman that the subject of this book had both perseverance and somewhere to go.

 

*   *   *

 

Cool Hand: An Amber Farrell Novel (Bite Back Book 4), by Mark Henwick, Marque, 2015, $3.95.

 

Remember how much fun the TV series Lost was as week by week we tried to figure just what the heck was going on while the writers lobbed curve ball after curve ball at us? The problem with the series was that a couple of seasons in you began to suspect the writers were just making it up as they went along, throwing in whatever they felt like because it was cool and surprising, rather than building toward a planned arc which would shock and awe and give us a satisfying sense of closure—of a story well-told.

That didn't happen, regardless of what you thought of the eventual finale. Because after a while the journey stopped making sense so it didn't matter how it ended. The writers broke their trust with us.

And I'm afraid we also seem to be edging into a similar territory with Mark Henwick's Bite Back series.

A couple of years ago I was very enthusiastic while writing about the first two books in this series, Sleight of Hand and Hidden Trump. At the time I felt that the fact that they were indie published was one of their strengths. because it allowed Henwick to tell his story in a non-traditional manner. I also felt that if a traditional editor had worked on the book, she might have been correct in her probable assessment that the story could be more focused, but she would have also taken away part of what made the book so entertaining: the exuberance with which Henwick approached his material and the way he danced around with the storyline.

Four books in I find myself wishing that hypothetical editor was on board and reining in a little of that storytelling exuberance.

To briefly reiterate my earlier review of the first two books:

 

In the way of so many urban fantasies, Henwick has vampires (which he calls Athanate) and werewolves (Weres) and witches (Adepts), all of them trying to stay hidden from human society. They follow the usual tropes: The Athanate are super strong, fast and scary; the Weres are pack-oriented, run with animal instincts for the most part; the Adepts do their magic thing.
His protagonist Amber Farrell is ex-military, now a private investigator. She's tough and capable and not a whole lot different from other urban fantasies either. But there's something about the way Henwick tells a story, and the veracity he brings to his characters, that had me glued to the pages from the start of the first book all the way through to the end of the second.
It certainly starts off with a bang. Let me quote from the ad copy accompanying the first book because it sums things up so well: "For Amber Farrell…life as a PI has its ups and downs: She's been hit by a truck. She's being sued by a client. Denver's newest drug lord just put out a contract on her. The sinister Athanate want her to come in for a friendly chat. And it's only Tuesday."
What we soon find out is that on a tour of duty in South America, Amber was bitten by an Athanate, but she hasn't become one herself. At least not yet. She's faster and stronger than humans, with better recuperative abilities, but she's still human. The military pulls her out of her beloved unit—the only place she's felt a part of something important—and after months of testing, cuts her loose into civilian life where she has to make a new start.
These books don't have conclusions—they take more of a breathing space at the end. Basically, they're just parts of a big story but for some reason that didn't bother me as much as it usually does. Maybe it's because they're just so darn good.

 

That's what I wrote back in 2013, and I still really like those two novels, but my feeling about the series is beginning to change.

The storytelling—by which I mean the pace of the narrative, rather than the actual plot—remains top notch through the next two books (Wild Card and the novel under discussion here, Cool Hand). I still really like the characters, too, although the size of the cast is getting a little unwieldy. The plot is becoming unwieldy as well, and that's my biggest concern.

Small arcs resolve, but the overall storyline isn't close to being resolved, getting more and more swollen and complicated to the point where four books in, it feels as though the story is still only being set up.

Yes, there's lots of forward momentum and action, but I'm beginning to get the sense that Henwick doesn't have an end game. Or if he does, he keeps thinking of new cool things to add to the mix, which pushes the endgame further away. Instead of clarifying matters, the series seems to be tottering on the brink of collapsing in on itself.

It all reminds me too much of Lost. Yes, I know that series books are the norm now, and that it can take a while to reach any sort of emotional payoff for all the time we've invested in reading it. But one likes to think that there will be a payoff and I'm no longer sure that's going to be the case here. Instead, like Lost, I'm afraid it's just going to fizzle out.

I'll wait for book five to come out before I make any final decision as to whether I'll continue with this series, but I do have to say that having finished Cool Hand and been left hanging again, I don't feel as compelled to pick up that fifth installment when it is published.

 

*   *   *

 

Departure, by A. G. Riddle, Harper Voyager, 2015, $21.99.

 

Speaking of Lost, A. G. Riddle's Departure shows how to do a mysterious thriller properly. It helps that Riddle obviously knew exactly where he was going with the story so that everything—all the weirdness and mystery—is only present to draw us through to the end, rather than showing off how cool and clever he can be.

I make the Lost reference because the book has a similar opening to the television series. A plane crashes—in England, rather than on an unknown island—but it's an England completely unfamiliar to the passengers. Cell phones are dead. Hour after hour goes by without rescue, which seems preposterous in this day and age when a downed jet plane in the British Isles would immediately bring swarms of rescuers and media.

The early part of the book introduces us to Harper Lane, Nick Stone and three other principal characters, with the narrative told in first person from Harper and Nick's perspectives. We're immediately caught up in the situation and rooting for them as they try to rescue as many of the passengers as they can, battling both the precarious positioning of the two main parts of the airplane that survived the crash and increasingly bad weather that makes their efforts and the chance of survival all that much more difficult.

After that, they start exploring, and I really don't want to tell you any more. Let me just say that the unexpected keeps arising, the stakes get higher and higher, but it all fits neatly and perfectly into the narrative. Every page absorbed my attention more than the one before it, not simply for the gritty thriller aspect, but because I cared so much for the characters and wanted them to succeed.

In the end, Departure becomes as much a philosophical thriller as it does a traditional one. Normally when one gets to the end of a thriller, that's it. You put it down and go on to the next book. But this one I intend to reread as soon as possible to savor the thinking behind the novel and its underlying themes.

A. G. Riddle is an unfamiliar author for me. Apparently this book was previously self-published, as was a trilogy of his called The Origin Mystery. All four books were hugely successful (selling in the millions) before Departure got snapped up by Harper Voyager for an edit and then a relaunch.

I'm not surprised at the author's earlier success. Departure was terrific from start to finish. The writing is polished, the characters sympathetic, and the themes are vastly pertinent to this busy world in which we live, many of us in prosperity, too many of us barely able to eke out a living.

Highly recommended.

 

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