If there’s a dude in a trenchcoat on the cover, it’s Urban Fantasy.
If there’s a lady in leather pants on the cover, it’s Paranormal Romance.
Those are the rules.
(That I made up).
Some Girls Bite is one of those books that shows just why I made those arbitrary rules up in the first place. See, after the gory cynicism of The Scarlet Gospels, I figured I’d go for something lighter, so I picked Chloe Neill’s novel more or less at random off of the Overdrive app (technically it’s under horror?) and … here we are. I might’ve swung a little too far into ‘light’ territory here. Funny how that works.
Some Girls Bite is the first in a series, centering on a grad student named Merit. When Merit gets randomly attacked by a rogue vampire while walking across campus, she gets “saved” by a different bunch of vampires who turn her into one, and thusly is introduced to the wider supernatural world of Chicago (as well as a bunch of sexy vampire dudes). Oh, and it also turns out that Merit’s grandfather is Chicago’s head magic-cop, and Merit’s cool roommate Mallory has a bunch of untapped magical power for, uh, reasons. And on top of all that, Merit’s apparently the strongest and special-est new vampire that’s been seen in centuries, again … for reasons?
To be honest, I’m willing to look past the ramshackle coincidence of Merit’s circumstances … mostly so I can complain about other parts of the book. For one, while Merit gets turned into a vampire, White never really delves into the horror of the situation. While Carrie Vaughn really highlighted “Lycanthropy as a metaphor for assault and PTSD,” Neill never gets close to that. Becoming a vampire is presented mostly like joining a fancy country club/sorority. She’s strong and immortal and beautiful, and only has to drink blood like every other night? Blood which her “house” (aforementioned vampire country club/secret society) is able to deliver in convenient blood bags. It’s all very tame– which makes it kinda boring, really.
What doesn’t help is that the book never really builds up stakes (ha ha vampire pun intended). Most of the book is just Merit blundering around trying to get used to being undead– fine … but at the same time a lot of the stuff that she should be worried about seems to get put on the back burner. Like, there’s the whole matter of the rogue vampire that attacked her in the first place, which is never resolved. Or there’s some other business about Merit having to swear fealty to the vampires who turned her– like, I kept on waiting for her to just say “no, screw you jerks, I’m gonna do my own thing.” Buuuuut no. She takes her oaths like a good girl, and then gets appointed to be the super-special “Sentinel” to guard the House (and its sexy sexy 400 year old yuppie vampire CEO). And then she gets a magic katana.
Did I mention the vampires in this book carry katanas? Because they do. And of course they wear lots of leather jackets (and pants!) as well, because Some Girls Bite is pretty much the platonic ideal of “generic paranormal romance” novel.
The thing is, Merit gets a fancy magic sword, but she barely gets to use it. There’s ultimately not that much in the way of conflict in the book, and when the book’s villain does show up, said villain goes into a supervillain-ish rant explaining their (rather stupid) plan before Merit takes her down. Like, ostensibly, I guess this could be setup for later books, but … I’m honestly not all that eager to read more books to find out.
The funny thing is, I wanted to like this book. Complain as I may about the generic-ness of the plot, Merit is still an interesting character. She’s snarky and overwhelmed, and also kind of a nerd– but she’s fun to read about. She was supposed to be studying medieval literature as a grad student– I would’ve liked to see more of that played up, maybe by having her fangirl out over old poetry with some vampire that might’ve been around when it was written, buuuuut the book never goes there. Pity.
I have to admit, Some Girls Bite is just one of those books that is Not For Me. I suppose if you’re up for some fluffy and light paranormal romance, it’s a decent enough read. It’s just that, again, much like the main plot, there’s not much in the way of “payoff” for the romantic angles. Like, Merit kisses some of the pretty vampire boys, sure– but nothing’s ever resolved. And heck, she doesn’t even get laid. Which, well, maybe it’s better if she doesn’t ’cause if sex scenes are all you want Laurell K. Hamilton is right there, but … yeah.
In the end, my biggest criticism of Some Girls Bite is that it doesn’t bring anything new to the table. It’s all vampire tropes and cliches tied together in a cozy couple hundred pages. If you’re in the mood for something low key and not very spooky, I guess you might like it better than I did.
Ooof. You guys, I think this year’s Horrortober may not quite as good as it could be. I imagine it’s partly ’cause I’ve had a bunch of Real Life business pop up. I shan’t bore you with the details (what is this, Livejournal?) but the silver lining is that things seem to be mostly back to normal. Just haven’t had as much time to read as I might like.
Still, with Halloween approaching, I figured I’d go for one of the widely acknowledged big names in the horror genre: Clive Barker. I haven’t read much Barker in the past, to be honest– like, I think I may have read a random volume of the Books of Blood at some point? And I did rather enjoy Mr. B. Gone, though I wound up listening to that on audiobook, which kinda threw a different spin on things.
Which brings us to Barker’s The Scarlet Gospels. Published in 2015, The Scarlet Gospels is a crossover of sorts. It brings together Pinhead (er, the Hell Priest, from The Hellbound Heart and/or the Hellraiser movies) and another of Barker’s characters, one Harry L’Amour, a hard-drinking paranormal investigator with a trenchcoat and magical tattoos and he’s totally not a John Constantine ripoff you guys. Really.
Oh, and also Harry was played by Scott Bakula in Lord of Illusions which is freaking hilarious. Because Bakula.
If anything can be said about The Scarlet Gospels, it’s certainly a Clive Barker novel. Which is to say, it’s messy. Possibly even Splatterpunk, to get genre-quibbly. Right off the bat, in the first couple of chapters, Pinhead shows up and gruesomely tortures a bunch of occultists to death. There’s disembowelment and rape and an evil demon-baby and dismemberment and it’s all pretty much Barker just leaning over your shoulder going “oh, poor baby, you don’t need a barf bag, do you? Is my story TOO SHOCKING for your tender sensibilities?” So, uh, I guess at least he’s got an aesthetic.
Barker finds more ways to be creatively sadistic over the course of the book, though one thing that the book keeps on going back to is dick. Monster dick. Nearly every horrible demon in The Scarlet Gospels whips it out at some point or another, which … well, I get that it’s supposed to be shocking mix of horror and sexuality, but after so much repetition it just starts being unintentionally amusing. Penises are just funny, that’s all. Even the ancient Greeks knew that.
To be honest, I didn’t even finish this book. Not ’cause of all the floppy demon-dongs, mind you, but rather because … it was boring. The basic gist of the plot is that Pinhead has decided he’s going to take over Hell, and he wants Harry L’Amour to follow him around to honestly chronicle his exploits. For, uh, reasons. While this has the potential of being a gory re-envisioning of Dante’s Inferno, it … never quite gets there.
Ultimately, this boils down to Pinhead. Or, as his proper title is, the Hell Priest. He hates being called Pinhead, and you get the feeling that Barker does too. I can’t imagine he was too thrilled about the later Hellraiser sequels, but what can ya do. I’m just gonna call him Pinhead anyway.
The problem with Pinhead is that he has the “Superman problem.” He’s so ludicrously powerful that he can just steamroll over any problem in his way, effortlessly torturing his victims to death with a mere wave of a hand. On top of that, just about every other character in the book immediately goes on about how scary and powerful Pinhead is whenever he’s mentioned. Hell, there’s even a bit where Pinhead gloats about he doesn’t need people to do the puzzle box for him to show up anymore, which is the whole damn point of the puzzle box. I get the need for powerful antagonists in the book, but a good chunk of The Scarlet Gospels centers on Pinhead wandering about executing his well-laid plans without any complications or difficulty. There’s not much depth aside from seeing what kind of creative gore Barker can come up with, and so The Scarlet Gospels commits the one unforgivable sin for horror: it’s boring.
It doesn’t help much the book’s littered with various ugly stereotypes, too. Harry’s best friend is a literal Magical Negro, and there’s a really tone-deaf depiction of a trans woman character who apparently is only there to be an asshole to Harry in one chapter, and gets horribly murdered off-camera sometime later?
So yeah. About 2/3rds of the way through The Scarlet Gospels, I gave up. The book just came off as meandering and a bit self indulgent, and I was tired of Barker telling me how rad Pinhead was. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anybody but the biggest of Clive Barker fans– and even then, I’m sure his earlier stuff is a lot better anyway.
Oh hey, it’s October! Which means horror novels! Woo!
And to start things off– Frankenstein! Or a take on it, anyway.
Kiersten White’s The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein is pretty straightforward– it’s a re-envisioning of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein through the lens of, well, Elizabeth Frankenstein (nee Lavenza). Where Elizabeth mostly existed in the original text to fall victim to the monster, White gives her the depth and agency to make her into a character of her own.
Elizabeth’s character is the most compelling part of the book. She’s got the standard ‘plucky and brilliant girl reads all the books she can’ thing going on … but at the same time she’s also desperate, afraid, and ridiculously manipulative, and she knows it. Her talents at conniving and using her beauty to get what she wants are often the only survival skills she has. Early 19th Century Europe being not very good to women, after all. Elizabeth is often snarky, and can be horrible in her own way (mostly through enabling Victor), which makes her a fun character to read.
The first part of the novel details Elizabeth’s search for Victor when he’s gone off to create The Creature, interspersed with flashbacks showing Elizabeth & Victor’s shared childhood (and how creepy and obsessive Victor was even as a kid). Victor’s characterization is wonderfully chilling, as he’s pretty much a sociopath just barely controlled by Elizabeth’s fluttering eyelashes. White goes all-in on the ‘Frankenstein was the monster all along’ theme, which is fun, not to mention feminist as all get out.
It’s also worth noting this book is based on the literary Frankenstein, not the Universal monster. So there’s no castles or hunchbacked assistants, for better or worse. I’ll admit to having to look up plot summaries of the original novel just to remember who various characters were. (Like, do you remember Justine?) Then again, it’s also been over a decade since I read the original Frankenstein, so yeah. Helpfully, the ebook edition I got from the library also has the text of the original Frankenstein, because yay for public domain!
The Dark Descent of Elizabeth Frankenstein retains all of Frankenstein‘s Gothic tone. In the original sense, mind you: all decaying manor houses and thunderstorms on mountaintops and foreboding forests and the like. The horror of it is less about the gruesomeness of reanimating dead flesh (though there’s a little of that in there), but more in the sense of foreboding dread that hangs over … well, everybody in the book. Especially since White assumes you know how the story ends.
Which allows her to take things in a different direction for the last third of the book or so, positing Victor’s letters from the original text as the work of an unreliable (and unhinged) narrator. It’s a fun touch, even if White does get a little cutesy about it at one point.
But hey, if a single self-indulgent gag is all I have to complain about, that probably means White’s onto something. Frankenstein is a classic for a reason, but White’s a talented enough writer to step into Shelley’s shoes and make the story her own. So if you’re in the mood for some grandiose horror, go ahead and give it a read.
There’s nothing quite like a properly swashed buckle.
I’m a sucker for anything with dashing swordsmen (and women!) wearing hats with big poofy feathers in them. The funny thing is, while a lot of fantasy novels feature pirates, or have a character wielding a rapier while everyone else is waving broadswords around, there aren’t many books that embrace the swashbuckling genre wholeheartedly. I mean, there’s Steven Brust’s brilliant Khaavren Romances, and I guess Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint novels, but … that’s about it. If I’m missing any other big ones, please, let me know in the comments.
With this in mind, I absolutely loved Curtis Craddock’s An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors.
It centers on Isabelle de Zephyrs, noblewoman in a fantasy kingdom vaguely modeled on 17th century France, and her faithful bodyguard/father figure, the Musketeer Jean-Claude. Due to her inability to do magic, Isabelle is seen as a liability to her family until she’s suddenly, randomly chosen to be married to the heir to Fantasy-Spain-Pastiche’s throne. Of course, it’s not long before things start getting more complicated, as the inevitable politicking and assassination attempts and ancient conspiracies ensue.
Where Steven Brust deliberately homages Dumas, down to the language and the chapter titles, Craddock works with somewhat broader strokes. He writes with a clear, well-paced style that still leaves plenty of room for flavorful details. Instead, Craddock draws from classic swashbuckling tropes: nefarious Church officials, disguised imposters, a big fancy masquerade ball, and so on. Oh, and a couple of swordfights, too, even if Jean-Claude is more of a brawler than a duelist.
All of this is combined with a variety of fantastical elements. In the first few chapters alone, we’re introduced to floating continents, airships (the ‘magic flying boat’ kind, not the steampunky zeppelin kind), aristocrat-sorcerers with vampiric shadows, and an order of magitek-cyborg engineer-priests who are totally not ripped off from Warhammer 40k’s Adeptius Mechanicus I swear. Craddock defines what the various schools of magic (or at least those that are important to the novel) can and can’t do, kind of like a Brandon Sanderson novel (just with better dialogue and more interesting characters). But the neat part is, Craddock never gets bogged down in the minutiae of who can do what magic– it’s all there to service the plot, and to make things properly strange and fantastical.
Of course, all this worldbuilding wouldn’t do any good if we didn’t care about the characters– so it’s a lucky thing Craddock concentrates on them, first and foremost. Isabelle is a little bit of a stock character– she’s a plucky young princess with a discerning, analytic mind, who studies mathematics and science in a society that forbids such things to her. Still, she’s fun enough to read– and Craddock adds another element to the mix in that Isabelle was born with only one finger on her right hand. This proves a difficulty for her in multiple ways– not only is it challenging for Isabelle to perform certain tasks, but there are many close-minded folk who see her hand as a mark of evil.
Likewise, Jean-Claude is … probably the only character named Jean-Claude I’ve actually liked (Jean Claude Van Damme aside). He’s clever and stubborn– but also getting older, so he can’t swing off of chandeliers like he used to. He’s equal parts boisterous and melancholy, and now I really want to read a prequel about Jean-Claude in his prime.
All and all, An Alchemy of Masques and Mirrors is a fun, action-filled novel, one I heartily recommend. The climax kind of went off in a different direction than I’d expected, but I still enjoyed it the same. A sequel, A Labyrinth of Scions and Sorcery, just came out this year, so I expect I’ll be tracking down a copy before too terribly long.
Multiverses are a tricky thing.
They can be pulpy fun, in a “what if?” sort of way. I’ve found that the concept works best as a foil to the “main” continuity, whatever it may be. Always fun to show the good guys as bad guys, and vice versa. Let everyone ham it up. This said, multiversal schenanigans also have something of a trap in that if there are too many options, there’s not any baseline to act as a “default.” I mean, even media with a dimension-hopping focus like Marvel’s Exiles comic book or that old Sliders TV show have the ‘standard’ Marvel universe and our own real world to contrast themselves with.
With this in mind, I kind of looked at Geneveve Cogman’s The Invisible Library a little bit askance. To be honest, I had kind of mixed the Invisible Library series up with Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels, but hey.
Cogman’s series is based on the titular Invisible Library, an infinite library set inbetween dimensions, run by a conspiracy of adventurer-academics who travel into various realities in order to collect, catalog, and preserve rare books. Which sounds kind of boring until you get to the part where Librarians will do anything to get their books, with all the heist-y book-focused schenanigans that entails. Or the other part where the Librarians have the power of Language, (written in bold like that whenever it’s used in a fun touch) a sort of magic that allows them to command the very nature of reality. Or the other part where the Librarians often find themselves dealing with the fae, beings of primordial chaos, or their lawful counterparts, the Dragons …
… there’s a lot to unpack here, is what I’m saying.
The good news is, Cogman does a good job in making the world (well, worlds) of The Invisible Library interesting and not too overwhelming. A lot of it comes down to the book’s protagonist, a Librarian named Irene. Irene is a fun character: snarky, resourceful, and often overwhelmed. Which is about par for the course for a book like this, though Irene also has a nerdy and analytical streak to her which makes her just a little bit deeper than “standard plucky female protagonist.” This said, I was able to predict one plot twist well before Irene did– you’d think a bibliophilic Librarian would be more genre savvy, but what can ya do.
After stealing a rare book of necromancy from a Hogwarts-pastiche, Irene returns to the Library where she gets a new assignment– and a new apprentice. Soon enough, she’s sent to a steampunk kitchen-sink version of London (with vampires and werewolves and fae and gentleman detectives and … ) to retrieve a particularly unique version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales– only to find the book missing, and its previous owner murdered. Oops.
Various conspiracies and hijinks ensue. It’s light and fluffy entertainment, if not particularly deep. Cogman has a lot of fun throwing in just about any crazy idea that she can think of, from centipede-mecha to river dragons to cyborg alligators. On top of that, Cogman has a genuine love of books (from an author? Shocking, I know) that comes through without being obnoxious.
I’m a little bit of a mixed opinion on the setting– most of the novel takes place in just the one reality, which makes the multiverse thing a little easier to handle, but at the same time said reality is just Yet Another Steampunk London. Maybe I’m just over putting gears on top hats or whatever.
And yet, I enjoyed the book enough to be curious about the rest of the series. I’ll probably get around to reading them eventually– because sometimes it’s nice to just have a stand-by series of pulpy adventures to fall back on.
I’ve been branching out when it comes to my reading lately– which is good!
Sometimes you just got to get back to your roots– and in my case, that means poking around the dollar paperback bin, which brings us to Paul Anderson’s Conan the Rebel. I mean, I’ve read Anderson before. Not to mention the book has a totally rad fold-out cover. Check it:
And, well, yeah. Conan the Barbarian! Even if you haven’t read any of the original Howard (and you should!) you know the character. Big burly dude with a sword who kills lots of bad guys and monsters, often with scantily clad women hanging around. That’s the point. The plot of Conan the Rebel is almost incidental– he sails around doing pirate stuff at the beginning, and then is drawn into a cunning trap by the bad guys, at which point he invariably breaks loose and kills a lot of bad guys and/or monsters, often with scantily clad women close by. Anderson does a good job in imitating Howard’s slam-bang action scenes, and he certainly puts in a lot of them. Always a good sign in a Conan book.
However! Anderson also brings some new stuff to the table– some good, some bad. One of the most notable things he does in Conan the Rebel is tie the novel directly into one of the more famous Conan stories, Queen of the Black Coast. Conan the Rebel actually takes place DURING the original Howard story, as one of the off-screen adventures alluded to where Conan sails around with the kick-ass pirate queen, Belit. So, y’know, points for the Howard-nerds out there, I guess. One doesn’t need to read Queen of the Black Coast to know what’s going on in Conan the Rebel— it just gives Conan a starting (and ending) point where Conan is sailing around doing pirate stuff.
And while it’s fun that Anderson ties the book into Conan “continuity” this way … at the same time he gives things a little too MUCH continuity. For one, he gives Belit a tragic (and cliche) backstory. Family killed by the local evil empire, escape from slavery, oaths of revenge, etc. It’s all a bit pat, and kind of diminishes Belit as the she-devil of the seas. Like, sure, I suppose this gives her motivation, but at the same time it’s more fun if she’s just tooling around being a rad-ass pirate just for the loot.
Likewise, Anderson throws in some more fantasy tropes as well, ’cause why not? Most notably, there’s some business about a prophecy, and how Conan is apparently destined to find some magic axe and defeat the evil Snake-Wizard Guys, and … yeeeeah. The book even has a chapter in which the evil Snake-Wizard Guys do their scrying and fret over how awesome and destiny’d Conan is. I’ve learned to be leery of “chosen one” plots– it’s just lazy storytelling, y’know? Not to mention the fact that (to me, at least), Conan works best as just … a guy. A really awesome guy, mind you, but more often than not he’s just this big lummox of an adventurer who blunders into weird situations that he’s forced to sword his way out of. Conan doesn’t need Gandalf to tell him to go on a quest– he’s already planning on looting Smaug’s hoard for beer money.
Conan the Rebel was published by Bantam in 1980, which puts it firmly in a post Terry Brooks/D&D era. Which makes me wonder if Anderson just kinda incorporated the standard “prophesied destiny to grab a magical macguffin” tropes to make the book a little more in-tune with a lot of Tolkien/D&D ripoff stuff getting published at the time, or what.
In any case, Conan the Rebel is … okay. Anderson hews pretty close to Howard’s style, even if the book gets a bit repetitive after awhile as Conan fights his way from one predicament to another, with everything wrapped up fairly pat by the end. I think part of the problem is that Conan stories work better in shorter-form, rather than full novels. Just get to the important bits, have some adventures, and get going. Conan the Rebel is pretty good for a pastiche, though– even if I’d recommend reading the original Howard first. But if you’re one of those folks who’s already read all the original Conan stories, then I guess Conan the Rebel is almost as good?
Ooof. I have been slacking. End of the summer blues, I suppose?
But hey! P.G. Wodehouse! He’s funny! And classic! And, well, the library app had The Prince and Betty, a book of his I’d never heard of before!
There’s probably a reason for that.
The Prince and Betty is a comic little novel with a ramshackle, screwball kind of plot. There’s some business about one Benjamin Scobell, a greedy financier, (more on him later) buying out the tiny, sleepy Mediterranean island nation of Mervo so he can turn it into a casino. And then, as a marketing stunt, said financier brings a man named John Maude, Mervo’s long-lost prince (who was born and raised abroad) back “home,” so he can marry Scobell’s daughter, Betty. Only the long-lost prince and Betty had sort of a thing back before either of them knew about his heritage, and Betty’s not too happy about being used for a publicity stunt, and so on. Hijinks ensue.
… for the first third of the book.
A little ways after that, the book completely shifts gears gears (and crosses the ocean over to New York) to a completely different screwball comedy about a monocle-wearing, muckraking journalist, an up and coming amateur boxer, a cat-loving gangster, and some business with tenements and slumlords. As apparently, Wodehouse decided to Frankenstein The Prince and Betty with a different one of his novels, Psmith, Journalist for the American edition. It’s … odd. Especially when Wodehouse starts writing out old-timey New York dialects, which is about as cringeworthy as one would expect.
Taken in little snippets, chapter by chapter, The Prince and Betty is entertaining enough. In fact, the chapter or two where Maude intentionally gets himself kicked out of Mervo are absolutely hilarious. Unfortunately, due to its combined nature, The Prince and Betty never coalesces together into the sort of madcap clockwork farce that one gets from the best Wodehouse novels.
And on top of that, The Prince and Betty is … problematic (as one sadly might expect from a book published in 1912). It’s not nearly on the level of, say, Lovecraft or anything, but there are still a few bits that really, really didn’t age well. For example, Scobell is described as green-eyed and hook-nosed, which is just a hair away from “classic” anti-semetic stereotypes of the time. And on top of that, towards the end of the novel, terms like “wop” or “coon” and so on are thrown around with all the casualness one would expect of a book written by a turn of the century Englishman. There’s a lot of stuff in there that doesn’t age well.
So yeah. While The Prince and Betty was enough to make me laugh on more than one occasion, it was still something of a let down, especially compared to some of Wodehouse’s other work. I honestly wouldn’t recommend it to anybody who hasn’t already exhausted Wodehouse’s other (better) novels. But hey, I guess they can’t all be winners, right?
Robin Sloan’s Sourdough, or, Lois and her Adventures in the Underground Market is what happens when Neil Gaiman binges a couple seasons of The Great British Baking Show.
That should honestly tell you whether or not you want to read this book or not.
But! Since that’d be a pretty short review, I’ll elaborate. Sourdough is a fun, fluffy novel, one that’s … technically a fantasy (at least that’s what it was classified under in my Overdrive app), but it’s pretty lacking in wizards or elves or what have you. I wouldn’t even call it urban fantasy, on account of the lack of leather-pants-wearing vampires. I … guess you could label it magical realism if you really had to?
Labels aside, Sourdough is just plain fun. It centers on Lois Clary, a robot-software programmer lured to San Francisco by a fancy-pants Silicon Valley startup. She soon finds (and falls in love with) a hole-in-the-wall takeout restaurant with absolutely phenomenal bread– only for said restaurant to close up shop a few months later. But, as a going away present, they give Lois a sample of their own sourdough starter, at which point she starts learning how to bake her own delicious bread. It’s more interesting than it sounds, honest. Especially when the loaves come out of the oven with faces on them– or when the yeast starter glows and sings in the wee hours of the morning.
This said, the possibly-supernatural elements of the novel take a backseat to the real focus: the food. First and foremost, Sourdough is about food. Not just the act of baking bread (though that tends to hog the spotlight), but all kinds of stuff, from homemade farmers-market fare to a bleeding-edge all-in-one nutrient gel tellingly labeled Slurry. Sourdough is about the conflict between the old and the new, about finding a place for traditional, sustainable cooking in a rapidly changing world.
Reading Sourdough will also make you hungry.
And honestly? That’s probably the only thing I can really complain about Sourdough, in that particularly food-porny chapters may not be the best idea if you haven’t had lunch yet. Sourdough isn’t particularly deep– but it’s not trying to be. Robin Sloan writes in a witty, cheery style that suits the comedy well, and Lois herself is a fun character to follow. She’s softly sarcastic, but also a definite problem-solver as she works through various problems related to baking and/or robotics.
So yeah. Sourdough details the rise (pun intended) and fall of a young woman’s baking hobby-turned-career. And while it’s not a cliffhanger-filled adventure, the book’s a solid page-turner nonetheless. It’s not quite on the sappy level of a Hallmark made-for-TV-movie, but Sourdough still has the warm and soft consistency of fresh, expertly baked bread. This novel probably won’t change your life, but it’s still quite satisfying, and well worth a read to anybody who likes to muck around with flour and eggs in the kitchen.
Tell me if you’ve read this one before.
A young woman, inspired by the stories her grandfather told her in her childhood, (as well as the mysterious relic he leaves to her), devotes her life to studying a particularly strange and esoteric period of history. Soon enough, she’s drawn into a shadowy conspiracy-world run by mysterious immortals who have influenced the course of history in their shadow-war, ancient beings forced to consume each others’ power to survive.
But instead of fancy vampires or katana-toting Scotsmen, the immortals are robots.
That’s Daniel H. Wilson’s The Clockwork Dynasty in a nutshell.
I’m being a bit pithy, yes– but that doesn’t mean this is a bad book. I mean, robots are freakin’ rad, after all.
The Clockwork Dynasty touches on a bunch of the standard ‘immortals among us’ tropes (including the ‘centuries old immortal in a child’s body’ thing), as well as just a bunch of robot ones as well, from the legend of the golem to Terminator. It’s Urban Fantasy with a sci-fi veneer, though not quite crunchy enough to really be labeled ‘Urban Sci-Fi.’ Which should totally be a thing, now that I think of it. Alien P.I’s! But I digress. Also I suppose you could technically call The Clockwork Dynasty steampunk (what, with the gears and all) but it’s really more clockpunk, but that’s just me quibbling over stuff.
Wilson is a deft writer, and he keeps the plot rolling along with tons of action scenes and cliffhangers. The Clockwork Dynasty is The Clockwork Dynasty alternates between time periods– and viewpoint characters. Half the book is written from the perspective of June Stefanov in the present day, while the other half follows Peter, a sentient clockwork automaton constructed for the court of Peter the Great. Soon enough, their stories intertwine, secrets are revealed, conspiracies emerge, and so on. And as an added bonus, since a lot of the major characters are robots, Wilson has a lot of fun in smashing them up, having their delicate clockwork systems get mangled and smashed in all kinds of elaborate ways. It’s like an 80’s cartoon, in which it doesn’t matter who dies, because they’re just machines!
But yeah. The Clockwork Dynasty is an entertaining enough read, even if it’s trope-tastic. Though now that I think of it, it would’ve been nice if June got some more time to shine. She’s written as curious, and as a problem-solver, which are really neat character traits. It’s just that, a lot of the time, she doesn’t get the chance to do anything with those traits, as the fighting immortal-robots kind of steal the spotlight. Like, the big climax centers on June stealing the MacGuffin while nobody’s looking– but at the same time, she just kind of … takes it, instead of doing something clever and engineer-ish. Peter, meanwhile, is your typical generic honorable immortal warrior dude, trying to figure out who fight for/what to believe in. He’s not boring per-se, but it’s more of the standard tropes. At least there’s not anything of a romance between June and Peter, so that’s a plus.
Even if Wilson wears his influences on his sleeve, there are just enough original ideas in The Clockwork Century to prevent it from being a stale rehash of any number of other stories. It’s a solid enough little adventure, if not something that will change your life. So if you’re in the mood for some rock-’em sock-’em robot action, go ahead and give The Clockwork Dynasty a read.
For the record, it’s important to distinguish Catherynne M. Valente’s Space Opera from Jack Vance’s Space Opera. I guess copyright can run out on titles, or I guess it’s just hard to trademark genre names, or whatever. In any case, I’d heard a lot of good thing about Valente’s Space Opera, and here we are!
The premise is simple– and absurd. As hundreds of years ago, after the conclusion of a horrible, genocidal galactic war, all the sentient species of the universe started a project to ensure such a thing would never happen again. Naturally, they decided on a music festival– every species sends their best musical acts, because what better way to prove you have a soul by bearing said soul on stage through song and dance? It’s explicitly Eurovision: IN SPAAAACE.
Oh, and there’s also a rule that whenever a new species is discovered, they have to send an act themselves– and if said act places in last place? Well, obviously that species isn’t actually sentient, and is no doubt a threat to the galaxy, and should summarily be wiped out.
Of course, the joke is, the space aliens in Space Opera kind of have terrible taste in music. As their short-list for human acts that they’d want includes Courtney Love, Yoko Ono, and the Insane Clown Posse. But when all of them are unavailable, the last act on the list is Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes, a washed up glam-rock trio. Except the frontman’s a has-been, the drummer’s dead, and the guy who actually knew how to play guitar has sold out to become a session musician. And yet, the fate of humanity rests on the shoulders of two (explicitly brown, explicitly queer) burnouts.
Reading Space Opera is like picking a page out of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at random while Ziggy Stardust plays in the background. Valente explicitly makes shout-outs to Adams and Bowie in the author’s notes at the back of the book, so this is entirely intentional. This said, a lot of the humor can come off as trying a little bit too hard. Like, I kind of started to roll my eyes when the cutsey time-travelling red panda showed up.
Decibel Jones (and therefore Space Opera) has something of a credo: “Life is fucked up and beautiful.” It’s both an indictment of modern society as well as a celebration of the transcendental power of music. It’s just that I couldn’t help but think that this very same message was told a lot better in Grady Hendrix’s We Sold Our Souls.
Some of that no doubt comes from personal bias– I’ve got more heavy metal in my library than I do Eurovision singles (though I should probably get a Lordi album at some point). Though beyond that, We Sold Our Souls just comes off as a deeper read. Even though it’s heavy metal horror vs. glam-rock sci-fi, We Sold Our Souls has a deeper connection to music itself– not just metal, but blues, country, even gospel. In contrast, Space Opera mostly talks about music in a gonzo alien mashup sense, and is pretty dismissive of anything that’s not glam enough. Mostly the alien music acts are there so Valente can make puns. Good puns, mind you, but still.
Likewise, the protagonist of We Sold Our Souls is a lot more active, going on a revenge quest– where Decibel Jones and the Absolute Zeroes (well, Absolute Zero, since there’s just the one guy) just kind of get swept up into things and muddle along. They fret and argue and panic a lot, but they don’t really do anything. Which … again, I suppose mirrors characters like Arthur Dent or Rincewind, but it’s still a bit dull.
Complain as I may, Space Opera still hits really hard when it wants to. It’s a grand tale of regret and beauty and showing all of that on stage (preferably while dressed in a bright pink sequin-lined wedding gown). The raw, painfully earnest, yet still wonderful ending wraps everything up in a grand finale that even moved a cynic like me. It’s not about the music, it’s about the feeling.
So yeah. Space Opera is a bit derivative, a bit rambling … and yet somehow it all comes together in the end. While I wouldn’t put Space Opera on a list of all-time-greatest Sci-Fi novels, it’s still different enough to be a nice change of pace. So if you’re in the mood for something weird and quirky and shamelessly silly, give it a read.
Then brace yourself for something brutal and go read We Sold Our Souls next.