Books I Read In October 2012
Fallen Angels – Mike Lee
Eleventh novel in the Horus Heresy sequence and a direct sequel to Descent of Angels, further chronicling the travails of the Dark Angels. There’s essentially two separate plots here, told in alternating chapters; in the first the legion’s Primarch, Lion El’Jonson, leads a force of Dark Angels to hold a vital forge world against traitor forces, and the second follows the outbreak of civil war on Caliban, where Jonson’s former mentor Luther has been exiled. The secret behind the fall of the Dark Angels has been told a few times over the years, I think this version of events is the third variation and I assume it is now canon. The relationship between Lion El’Johnson and Luther is essentially the same as that between the Emperor and Horus, which ties things into the overarching narrative of the Horus Heresy rather well. Another successful instalment in a series that consistently maintains a high standard.
Shake Away These Constant Days – Ryan Werner
Another short story collection from Jersey Devil press, though this time the contents are far from the lunatic froth of Eirik Gumeny’s work. Each brief story is a snapshot of a more or less normal person, capturing a moment in their lives when things are about to change in some way. I believe the stories are inspired by song lyrics, though not in a particularly literal or direct way. They’re all well written and some of them are genuinely moving. Highly recommended.
The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
It’s 1851, and the infamous hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters are sent to track down a prospector in gold-rush California. Along the way they run into a bizarre selection of losers, cheaters, and crazies. Along the way Eli starts to become more and more unsure about why he does what he does, and whether he wants to continue. The writing is wonderful, it’s very sparse without a word wasted which contributes to the general sense of spartan emptiness of life on the frontier. I love the period language, it gives everything a slightly formal feeling that makes even the simplest conversations sound somehow fascinating1. I was surprised by what the brothers find when they actually catch up with their quarry, but it does fit in with the off-kilter, slightly dream-like logic of the story.
Osama – Lavie Tidhar
Down-at-heel private detective Joe finds his life turned upside down when he gets a client with an unusual job; she wants him to track down Mike Longshott, the author of a series of pulp action novels with a cult following. The books all follow the exploits of ‘Osama bin Laden: Vigilante’, tales of mass violence and secret wars of a kind that make no sense to Joe, who lives in an Asian-dominated world where terrorism seems to be non-existent. Excerpts of the stories are interspersed throughout the main narrative, each detailing something that happened in the real world. Joe runs into the traditional gumshoe troubles, it seems that he’s not the only one who wants to know what’s going on and where the books are coming from . . . This novella is less about plot and more about atmosphere and thinking about the relationship between violence and entertainment; terrorist atrocities from the real world form escapist entertainment in Joe’s world, whilst his fears and injuries are turned into detective pulp to entertain us. Towards the end the story more or less falls apart into a dream-like sequence, flowing from brief snapshots from the ordinary lives of people killed in the attacks detailed earlier, through the coalition assault on Afghanistan, to Joe’s inconclusive encounter with Longshott. I do have a few issues with this book; it’s obvious that the plot, such as it is, exists only to provide a framework for this deconstruction, which is fair enough but in that case I think it could have been pared back even further2. As it is there’s enough plot to make me frustrated that it feels incomplete; elements like the way the Osama novels are popular with the dispossessed underclasses appear but are not really investigated, and at times the deliberate employment of detective fiction tropes feels forced. The excerpts from the Osama novels also don’t really work for me, they’re supposedly pulp action novels but that snippets we see don’t read like that at all, they’re more like encyclopedia entries with brief, unemotional run-downs of events, timelines, and casualty figures. But anyway, going too far down this route would be missing the point, as an exercise in how we think about fiction this is well worth reading.
At Swim-Two-Birds – Flann O’Brien
Metafictional, multilayered, impressionistic, I’m not really sure how to describe this. The narrator is a student, who between occasionally studying and constantly drinking is writing a novel. The subject of this novel is himself writing a novel, using his powers of creativity to enslave the characters in this novel-within-a-novel. Of course these characters are mostly taken from other books, westerns, crime novels, Irish mythology, etc. Then one of them begins to write his own book, using the opportunity to revenge himself upon his creator, who he subjects to a variety of torments. All the various strands swirl together with little rhyme or reason beyond the pleasure of creativity and language, a mad shaggy-dog story chasing it’s own tail. It’s a grand book, but it’s probably for the best it’s quite short – much longer and I think it could easily become tiresome. Also I must admit that I skimmed through the longer parodys of Irish mythological poems.
Ravenous Dusk – Cody Goodfellow
I discovered this epic biohorror/technothriller when it was mentioned in the introduction to the reissue of Delta Green: Strange Authorities, and there are some definite similarities: late ’90s Cthulhu mythos, a tangle of conspiracies within and without the US government, and a suffocating feeling of impending doom. The Mission, a fanatical group of defected military personnel and defence scientists, are engaged in a fanatical war of extermination with Radiant Dawn, a mysterious organisation supposedly working to aid terminal cancer sufferers but actually dedicated to forcing humanity to evolve into a higher form. In this case, a ‘higher form’ consists of amalgams of sentient, polymorphic tumours, and there’s a great deal of gleefully imaginative and lovingly rendered body horror here, with the human form twisted and reformed like plasticine3. The setting is thick with paranoia, more or less every organisation is manipulated from the shadows, whilst the secret masters mistrust and plot against each other as much as their enemies. One thing I did like was the range of conspiracies involved; groups within the federal government, ‘classical’ secret societies, racialist fanatics, and mythos cultists. The Lovecraftian side is handled interestingly, in the first book4 there are almost no signs of the mythos and it could easily be an unrelated sci-fi/horror tale, but as the second book proceeds the truth is unveiled. Most Cthulhu stories tend to focus on the paranormal, supernatural side of things but here the emphasis is definitely on the science-fictional aspect of Lovecraft’s work, delving into the true origins of Earthly life and the implications for humanity. It’s possibly a little dated, with it’s ‘end of history’ vision of America as a superpower falling apart from within, paranoid anti-federal militia groups holed up in the desert, and ‘new religious movements’, but really I think that’s just another way of saying that it’s firmly rooted in a specific time and place. I was very impressed with this indeed, it doesn’t pull any punches at all but follows it’s premise through right to the end, soaked in blood and fear and alien biology.
1 Or at least it does to modern ears.
2 I’ve thought this about some of Tidhar’s previous works as well, that they should either be distilled down into short stories or expanded into novels.
3 It’s very ‘wet’ – blood and bile and other fluids. Also it features a sex scene that I can’t even begin to describe . . .
4 It’s a single lengthy plot told over two books, presumably because it’s too big to publish in a single volume; it’s easily the longest Lovecraftian story I’ve read.