Books I Read In January 2013
Hunter’s Moon – David Devereux
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but there’s a secret branch of the UK intelligence services devoted to defending the realm against supernatural threats. Where this particular novels differs from it’s brethren is in it’s central character – usually in these things the hero is something of a geek, but here the nameless protagonist is a cynical hard-man. The occult-espionage genre could possibly benefit from an injection of testosterone, and there’s certainly mileage in the idea of someone tackling occult threats with bluntly mundane means, but this is not the book to do it. The protagonist is highly skilled in both magic and the traditional action man skillset, in fact he seems to be highly skilled in pretty much everything. He’s a great spy, and a lethal fighter, and he’s good at magic, and women find him irresistible, and also he’s great at playing blues guitar – basically the fantasy figure of an adolescent boy of limited imagination. Which wouldn’t be an insurmountable flaw if it was at least done entertainingly, but aside from the odd spark it’s at best workmanlike and frequently tedious. There’s also an unpleasant strain of misogyny running through the whole thing, from a plot revolving around ‘feminist’ witches to the way all the female characters are primarily described in terms of how fuckable they are. If it’s not offensive, it’s because the whole thing is too stupid to take seriously. At one point he accidentally interrogates a woman to death whilst trying to get information out of her using a combination of drugs and bondage. Which sounds absolutely horrific, except on the page it’s just plain stupid1. The whole thing is just dispiriting, made even worse by the fact that the sub-Andy McNab protagonist is clearly intended to be seen as totally awesome. Tedious rubbish seemingly aimed at people who complain about ‘political correctness’.
Fast Machine – Elizabeth Ellen
Collection of short stories, most of them short, some of them very short, and a couple on the longish side. By and large they deal with women and girls on the hardscrabble edges of society, either trying to change their lives or just get on top of the ones they have. By and large it’s the shorter pieces that work best, giving you a brief snapshot with just enough detail to show the life outside the frame. I wouldn’t say there are any standout moments here, on the other hand I don’t think there are any noticeable failures either, just a high standard throughout. I did think that perhaps the effect is dulled a little by reading them all one after the other, the stories might work better as individual moments rather than parts of a larger mass but I suppose that’s unavoidable with a collection like this.
The Ironclad Prophecy – Pat Kelleher
The follow-up to The Black Hand Gang, which I enjoyed a few months back. The Pennine Fusilliers are still stranded in the midst of an alien world, fortifying their transplanted stretch of Somme as they await the armies of the insectoid Chatt. This book is centred around their strongest weapon, the tank Ivanhoe, whose armour and firepower are aided by the fact that the locals believe it to be the avatar of the god of the underworld. Of course, petrol is in short supply, and has been replaced with alcohol distilled from some of the local flora – a concoction which, as witnessed in the first book, has powerful psychotropic/entheogenic properties . . . Ivanhoe’s crew, already a secretive, eccentric group, start acting like acolytes in a cult, while their leader starts thinking like a priest king rather than a lieutenant in the British army. I greatly enjoyed this book, it sort of reminds me of the ‘planetary romance’ pulp stories, broadly drawn characters adventuring their way across a vividly drawn world. It’s got abandoned insect cities, tentacled monsters fallen from the stars, and a WWI tank crewed by men going psychic from inhaling the engine fumes – what more can you ask?
Epic Fail – Mark O’Connell
A ‘Kindle Single’, basically an extended essay, taking in the phenomenon of the ‘epic fail’ – when a work of art proves to be such a tremendous failure that it attracts a particular fanbase precisely because of it’s failure. Starting with early examples, such as the legendarily bad poet William McGonnigal and uniquely terrible novelist Amanda McKittrick Ros, the author first demonstrates that the ‘epic fail’ is not a modern phenomenon, before moving on to more recent failures like Rebecca Black and The Room. There are basically two main arguments here; firstly, that what really delineates an ‘epic fail’ from the the ordinarily terrible is the attitude of the creator – they have to genuinely think that what they are doing is worthwhile, if not outright genius, regardless of how other people react; and secondly, that there is a definite element of cruelty in the way people flock to make fun of such things. I’m broadly in agreement with both of these arguments, though I do have some reservations. For starters, it seems difficult to square Rebecca Black with the first proviso since as far as I know she always basically treated Friday as what it actually is; a glorified Karaoke session that got loose on the internet, and while many of the people attending screenings of The Room are clearly trying to humiliate it’s maker, at least as many seem to genuinely enjoy the film. The threads could do with further untangling, and in some ways it’s a shame this is so short – it seems like the topic could well support a longer work. Also, I suppose this reflects poorly on me, but the author’s story of his own encounter with a terrible gangsta rapper from Galway did make me wonder what the dude actually sounded like.
Cyclonopedia – Reza Negarestani
A weird one this – a work of ‘theory-fiction’, purportedly an overview of a renegade Iranian archeologist. There’s also a framing story involving a woman finding a manuscript in a hotel room, though it doesn’t really seem to go anywhere after the first chapters. The majority of the book is made up of bizarre theories about the metaphysical dynamics of the Middle East, oil/war economies, occultural politics, demons, and the interpenetration of human consciousness by the Outside. All of this is told with a blizzard of references to pre-Islamic mythology, ancient history, video games, and HP Lovecraft. There’s a definite resemblance to Lovecraft’s work, not to his stories but to the tomes of sanity-wracking occult knowledge2 that appear in them, reading this book is rather like being lectured by a brilliant but mad scholar. It’s hard to know how much, if any, of this is meant to be taken seriously, some of it seems like it could be a political metaphor but I honestly couldn’t say. My knowledge of that part of the world being shamefully poor, I also don’t know how many of the references to history and theology are real and how many are invented. I was reminded of the magnificent House of Leaves, the only book to have genuinely frightened me3, which is no bad thing at all. It’s obviously a very niche work, but if you’re up for just letting the madness flow through you it’s definitely worth a look. I’m certainly glad I read it, even if my copy sadly didn’t seem to have any spells scrawled in the margins.
Rodinsky’s Room – Rachel Lichtenstein & Iain Sinclair
During the early 1980’s a room was discovered above a Whitechapel synagogue, the contents undisturbed since the occupant, David Rodinsky, disappeared over a decade previously. The mystery of who Rodinksy was, and what happened to him, naturally attracted the attention of London’s outsider scholars and soon Rodinsky was part of the city’s occult mythology. The book is made up of alternating chapters, with Rachel Lichtenstein narrating her own obsession with Rodinsky and her investigation into both him and her own heritage, whilst Sinclair provides context on the world of East End Jewry. It’s interesting, but maybe not quite so interesting to me as it was to the the authors. Lichtenstein’s interest in Rodinsky’s story is entwined with her own attempts to uncover her family history, which kind of distracts from Rodinsky himself. There’s a conscious effort to avoid mythologising the man, to present him as a real person rather than an archetype or mythical figure, which is the right thing to do but which does perhaps make the story less compelling. Sinclair’s sections are sometimes fascinating, and he’s pretty much always worth reading, but they don’t always feel like they’re directly connected to the story as a whole. Basically this is a good book, but I just didn’t feel the same sense of connection to the story as the authors clearly do.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao – Junot Diaz
Oscar Wao is a Dominican-American geek living in New Jersey and struggling with his weight, his propensity for falling head-over-heels in unrequited love, and his general incapacity for survival in the real world. His mother and sister have problems of their own, and it seems like the tragic history of the Dominican Republic has infected the Wao family. This really is a wonderful novel of family history, magical history, and a righteously savage attack on the Trujillo regime, all told in a blend of ghetto slang and 80s/90s geek culture. It sounds like it couldn’t possibly work, but once you start reading it you can’t imagine it being told any other way. I found myself identifying strongly with Oscar4, he seems like the perfect encapsulation of the geek personality – his willingness to spend huge amountsof time on things of no earthly use and almost none on the business of actually living, his polarising desire to be both like everyone else and to be different, his worldview built out of comic books and role-playing games and pulp sci-fi . . . Also the way he is both unjustly abused by others and the architect of many of his own disasters. The real success of the book is that Oscar and his family are shown both sympathetically and honestly, their flaws and failings are shown with brutal clarity but so are the reasons behind them. There’s just a real feeling of heart in this novel, it really is quite fantastic.
The White-Luck Warrior – R Scott Bakker
In my opinion, R Scott Bakker’s excellent fantasy novels don’t seem to be getting the recognition they deserve – perhaps they’re overshadowed by George R R Martin’s work? There are certainly some similarities, in that both series’ represent a take on epic fantasy that is either ‘darker’ or ‘more realistic’ depending upon your worldview. Bakker’s novels however feel like more of a deliberate deconstruction of the genre, an attempt to take the genre’s tropes through to their logical conclusion5. The other thing that stands out about them is the philosophical element to them, the question of what it means to be human and to have free will being of paramount importance. This volume is the second book in the second trilogy, continuing the chronicle of the Great Ordeal as the inhumanly capable Anasurimbor Kellhus leads it ever further Northwards. The Prince of Nothing sequence, the first trilogy, portrayed Kellhus’ rise from utter obscurity to the absolute ruler of human civilisation as an analogue of the Crusades; the current trilogy, the Aspect-Emperor series, takes it’s cues from Tolkein. The Great Ordeal, an enormous army of many nations and kings fighting it’s way towards the stronghold of the incomprehensibly malevolent Consult, is obviously a take on the War of the Ring, whilst Achamian’s quest for the secrets hidden in the legendary Coffers involves elements from both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Unlike Tolkien’s works however, these quests are not noble adventures but complex enterprises involving a great deal of politics, confusion, and sheer, savage violence. A strong Old Testament feel runs through all of the books, a sense of blood and thunder in the air, of a fundamentally pre-Modern morality. There’s very little nobility to be found here, but on the other hand I wouldn’t call the books cynical; they don’t fall prey to the cheap nihilism that infects a lot of ‘dark fantasy’. I get the impression that Bakker is genuinely interested in the quandries he puts forward, he doesn’t exempt himself from the criticisms and questions he levels at human nature. An excellent installment in an excellent series, absolutely recommended to fantasy fans.
1 I’m not an expert on ‘enhanced interrogation’ by any means, but I feel sure it should not involve getting the subject to call you Daddy.
2 Cyclonopedia – English, by Reza Negarestani, published 2008; SAN Loss 1/1D3; Cthulhu Mythos +2%; Average 6 weeks to comprehend.
3 In the form of a sudden attack of agoraphobia.
4 I feel like that’s somehow wrong of me, but it is true nonetheless.
5 Also, there seems like an excellent chance that we’ll actually find out how Bakker’s story ends.