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Books To Look For
The Rook, by Daniel O'Malley, Back Bay Books, 2012, $16.99, tpb
Stiletto, by Daniel O'Malley, Back Bay Books, 2017, $16.99, tpb
The Starz network is running a new series called The Rook. The premise sounded promising so I tuned in but I was a little disappointed in how they approached it. Then I noticed it was based on a book so I tracked down a copy and oh my, what a difference.
Now I'm not so naïve as to think that an adaptation of a book is going to be an exact copy. And I also know that a book is usually a better experience since I get to picture it all in my head as I'm reading. But I do expect the adaptation to capture the tone of the book. It might deliver the elements differently, but to be a success, it should at least leave a viewer with the same feeling as they got when they were reading the story.
For me the Starz production didn't manage to pull it off.
While the TV show has a great setting with London, the camera work is bleak and the characters morose. The whole thing is rather unappealing unless you happen to gravitate to the bleak and morose. The book has the same setting but in the main viewpoint character, Myfanwy (rhymes with Tiffany) Thomas, we get a voice that is puzzled and thrown off kilter by what she's undergoing, but she still has some warmth to her, and there's a good helping of low-key humor in the mix.
For a touchstone, think of Ben Aaronovitch's River of London series, only substitute a secret network of British spies called the Checquy Group dealing with supernatural menaces to the general public for Aaronovitch's regular British police who are doing the same.
Let me take you back to that initial premise that drew me in.
The woman we come to know as Myfanwy wakes up at night, lying in the pouring rain with dead bodies scattered all around her and absolutely no memory of who she is. She knows everything else about life in general but nothing personal. The only clues to her situation are two letters she finds in her pocket.
The first reads in part:
The body you are wearing used to be mine…
The second letter offers her a choice. She can either assume the new identity that Myfanwy has provided for her, complete with a new ID and all the money she needs to start a new life. Or she can try to take up Myfanwy's life, find out who is responsible for what has happened, and then deal with the situation. The original Myfanwy has made copious notes about pretty much everything but all she knows about the people behind what has happened to her (or in her case will happen) is that it's someone with whom she works.
The new Myfanwy is smart enough to take option number one. She goes to the bank where her new identity awaits except that once she gets into the vault that holds the safety deposit box, the bank employee who is helping her punches her in the face. Men appear, holding her down while one of their number prepares to plunge a hypodermic needle into her.
Whereupon they are all mysteriously and violently flung away from her. At that point, Myfanwy realizes that even if she wants to walk away from all of this, whoever is behind it won't let her do so. She thinks, screw this, and takes up the old Myfanwy's life.
The story that follows is fun and fascinating as she does her best to figure things out. It's complicated by the fact that she now finds herself to be an elite member of that aforementioned secret government agency devoted to protecting the general public from the supernatural. But somehow she manages to fit in, all the while trying to figure out who wiped out the first Myfanway's memory in the first place.
Daniel O'Malley is a new author for me. I love the tone of this book and how inventive he is when it comes to supernatural beings. The members of the Checquy Group are as supernatural as the beings they are going up against, and their abilities are bizarre and wonderful. But I especially love the character of Myfanwy. Since we get a lot of letters that the old Myfanwy wrote to the new, we get to appreciate both of their personalities, and I couldn't pick a favorite. The new one is much more assertive and sure of herself, however, than the old one ever was (even given the circumstances), and the way she cuts through to the truth is empowering.
Stiletto brings back the surviving cast of the first book while also introducing us to a new threat from mainland Europe, a secret group of scientists called the Grafters who for hundreds of years have been making bizarre augmentations to their bodies and have managed to figure out a version of immortality.
A group of them have come to England to align themselves with the Checquy Group, but unfortunately they brought along their own enemies who start a terrorist war against both organizations as well as the helpless populace of England.
These books are a pair of the best contemporary fantasies I've read in a long time, endlessly entertaining with a freshness that brings to mind why I fell in love with the genre in the first place.
The books are highly recommended but you're on your own in deciding whether to watch the TV show.
Ormeshadow, by Priya Sharma, Tor.com, 2019, $14.99, tpb
There are only four decent people in Ormeshadow: a couple are on stage for only a page or so, a person who commits suicide, and the last is our viewpoint character, Gideon Belman. Everybody else is mean-spirited and cruel and it gets wearying.
I know I'm in a minority with this sort of thing. Most people seemed to really enjoy reading about other peoples' misery. And before you ask, I know that there has to be conflict and problems for there to be a story, but when the unpleasantness is the pervading mood, I find myself asking, why read this?
Our main character is Gideon Belman, ten when the book starts, sixteen or so when it ends. He's grown up in Bath, but when his family's fortunes fail, they move back to the sheep farm where his father John grew up. It's there Gideon gets to meet his miserable and bullying Uncle Thomas, Thomas's meek wife, and the cousins who take their cues from their father.
Folkore has it that under a headland of the sheep farm lies a dragon, asleep for thousands of years. Gideon is fascinated by the stories his father John tells him about the legendary creature. His uncle, if he even accepts that the legend is true, only cares about the dragon's hoard and sees no wonder.
One of the real problems with Ormeshadow is that Sharma is a terrific writer. There are occasional scenes and passages written with great beauty. But because she's as good as she is, the unpleasantness is really driven home as well.
There are some who will feel that the end of the book is worth the journey, but for me the end of the book is never the point. It's the journey to get to the end that I want to appreciate.
Spoiler alert, so read on at your own peril.
Eventually, the dragon wakes at Gideon's call and destroys everybody on the farm and in the nearby village who have been tormenting him—which is everybody. The message seems to be, hang in there, stay true to your moral compass, and everything will work out for you. My advice to Gideon and anybody finding themselves in a similar situation would be get out as quick as you can and make a new life for yourself elsewhere.
Hard to do when you're ten, I know, but that was a different time and preteens were already doing an adult's work, so he could have stood a chance of bettering what was an untenable situation. Then and now, life is too short to allow yourself to be mistreated the way Gideon has been in Ormeshadow.
Ragged Alice, by Gareth L. Powell, Tor.com, 2019, $14.99, tpb
Here's a book for those of you who love the mystery dramas that are broadcast on the BBC. You know, the ones set in small villages and towns on desolate moors or rugged seacoasts where the very landscape is eerie and everybody hides a secret.
As usual, this works even better in prose, where our own imaginations fill the TV screen in our heads, casting the characters, developing the mood, building the suspense. In his new novel Ragged Alice, author Gareth L. Powell gives us everything we need to make it a deliciously dark experience.
Detective Chief Inspector Holly Craig grew up orphaned in the small Welsh coastal town of Pontyrhudd and left as soon as she could to join the police. Fifteen years later she's escaping the fallout of a school shooting that was mishandled by the police and for which she took the blame, though nothing of what happened was her fault. But she can't get the images of the victims out of her head and in fact doesn't want to forget them. Every morning she writes their names on her arm.
But now she's back in Pontyrhudd, and her first case is what appears to be a simple hit-and-run, except that the chief suspect soon shows up dead in a graveyard, brutally murdered, with his stomach slit open and tree twigs pushed into his eyes.
I know. That's gross, but Powell doesn't show the actual murders happening and doesn't dwell in excessive details when the police are on the scene, so the worst of these moments happens in our imaginations rather than on the page.
DCI Craig is a prickly woman, and this complication of what should have been a simple case annoys her and then becomes disturbing when she discovers what's been done to the corpse is the same as what was done to her mother, who was murdered a couple of decades or so earlier.
There's a paranormal element to the proceedings (or I wouldn't be reviewing it here) that's low-key but ultimately of prime importance to understanding everything that's going on in Pontyrhudd. Powell does an excellent job of teasing it out. In fact he does an excellent job all round. The characters ring true, the setting is fully realized and the pace of the book is perfect.
I don't know if there will be more books with DCI Craig, but if there are, you can be sure I'll read them.
Shadow Hunter, BR Kingsolver, independently published, 2019, $14.99, tpb
Night Stalker, BR Kingsolver, independently published, 2019, $14.99, tpb
I can't remember how I first ran across BR Kingsolver's Shadow Hunter, but I know that the series title was what intrigued me enough to give the book a try: Rosie O'Grady's Paranormal Bar and Grill. It immediately put me in mind of Spider Robinson's classic Callahan's Crosstime Saloon stories, or the wonderful Jorkens stories by Lord Dunsany that were set in a London gentleman's club.
Alas, as I began the first chapter, I soon discovered that neither could be touchstones for Kingsolver's book.
A sidebar here: We all have our pet peeves when it comes to the books we read. A couple of mine are the use of prologues or first chapters that are basically info dumps.
I understand how handy they can be from a writer's standpoint. If your book is going to have a slow build before things start happening. a great way to lay down some tension is to have a prologue where the reader is given a hint of the terrible things to come. That way, no matter how innocuous events appear to be, one has an anticipation of the thrills and chills to come. In other words, it creates tension where there is none.
The info-dump first chapter (or one which outlines the protagonist's life from birth to where the story actually begins) lets the writer get all sorts of (possibly) necessary background things out of the way without having to fill readers in as they go along. But what it actually does is just make for a dull opening that many readers won't get past.
For me, either just seem like laziness. Give us the story and fill things in as needed. If the story's good enough, it will stand on its own. We'll figure things out and read on. Follow the advice of the mystery writer Lawrence Block: Write your book, then throw away the first chapter. Because it's usually not necessary.
Shadow Hunter has a first chapter that's actually a prologue and also an info dump. Our protagonist Erin McLane is a grown woman, but the prologue opens with: "I was almost fourteen and had just started my menses when my parents sold me to the Illuminati" and goes on to relate how Erin ends up being trained and then used as an Illuminati assassin until a task her Masters give her ends up backfiring on them.
When the dust clears, they and their hidden city are gone and only Erin is left standing in the ruins. Being sensible, she immediately takes off and goes into hiding because, while the secret society itself has been destroyed, there are still a small number of Illuminati loose in the world. If they ever figure out what she's done, they will destroy her.
Now the thing about rules—or pet peeves—is that they exist to be broken. What made me keep reading the first chapter was that it was interesting and I really enjoyed the protagonist's voice. And I understand why Kingsolver stuffed so much backstory into it, because otherwise she would have needed to write an entire other novel just to show us everything that happened to Erin and made her as she is.
And that wasn't the novel she wanted to write, apparently.
A longer version of the events, or having them seeded through the book as bits of backstory, simply wouldn't have given Shadow Hunter the same tone.
When the novel properly starts (sorry, I couldn't help a last little dig), Erin finds herself in the seaside city of Westport, which is as far as she can get from the hidden city of the Illuminati. It's late, and as she goes looking for someplace to eat and sleep, she finds herself in an Irish pub, the afore-mentioned Rosie O'Grady's Paranormal Bar and Grill. The "paranormal" isn't a part of its actual name, but she soon realizes that this is a hangout for magical types.
She goes in to eat and comes out with a job as a bartender, courtesy of the owner Sam O'Grady.
In many ways this is a typical urban fantasy. The main plot centers around a serial killer targeting the magical community and how Erin becomes a prime suspect because of her mysterious past and the fact that she keeps finding herself embroiled in various nefarious goings on, but it's not why you'll want to read it. I was very taken with Erin and her interactions with the staff of the bar and its patrons (which feel a bit like the cast of a supernatural Cheers, to some degree). We've seen some of the character types before, but there are also fresh takes such as the autistic bartender Liam, who is handled with respect.
But Erin, as the viewpoint character, is the main focus, and she's a fascinating mix of badness capabilities (from her years with the Illuminati) and naïvete (ditto). She has no problem dealing with the action elements of the story but is flummoxed by simple things such as friendship, and the author does a terrific job of juxtaposing the one part of Erin's personality with the other.
Kingsolver wraps things up by the end of Shadow Hunter (no cliffhangers!), but if you have as much fun with the book as I did, you can start right in on its sequel, Night Stalker, with a third book promised for later in the year (and it might already be out by the time you're reading this).
In Night Stalker, Erin gets caught up in a war between the city's various vampire lords, each of whom goes back and forth between thinking she's their particular savior or that she's come to town to destroy them. As in the first book, the plot and the action are utterly satisfying, but not as much as the interactions between the characters and Erin's late-start coming of age.
While waiting for the third and final book I decided to explore some of Kingsolver's other series, and for the most part I enjoyed them just as much.
The Dark Streets series features an elvin landscaper named Kellana and probably comes the closest in tone to the Rosie O'Grady books, with another great ensemble cast. This time the supernatural beings have been outed, which is a frustration for Kellana, since she's been happily living a quiet, unassuming life for the past seventy years.
The Chameleon Assassin series is set a little in the future and features a burglar/assassin named Libby who, ironically, also runs a security company.
As happened with the Rosie O'Grady series, I really enjoyed the voices of the two viewpoint characters. My only quibble—and it's a small one—is that, having read these books all in a row, the protagonists'' voices all seemed somewhat the same. But since I liked that voice, that wasn't a real problem.
I did try one other series called The Telepathic Clans, but it wasn't really for me. It's heavy on the heaving bodices aspect (which is pretty much a non-issue in all those other books) and read a little juvenile for my tastes (in the sense that there seems to be an awful lot of wish fulfillment in its pages). Which is kind of interesting since it's apparently her most popular series.
But I often seem a little out of step with the rest of the parade.
Do try the Rosie O'Grady series.
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