Somerville, MA, United States | Member Since 2005
I’ve read a couple of Michael Chabon’s other books and have found him to be a writer I like a lot, but have never been totally enamored with. His prose reminds me of a certain type I sometimes meet at parties in the city: stylish, insightful, full of savoir faire, but trying just a little too hard to impress, and maybe not as original as he wants to be.
Still, if there was ever a novel that plays to an author’s descriptive flair and love for homage, it would be the Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Through mannered but flip character study, Chabon hones in on the energies passing through pre-war New York City, as experienced by two young artists intent on making their mark in the dawning Golden Era of Comic Books, and later, the doldrums of 1950s suburbia and a stagnating industry. One of his protagonists, Joe Kavalier, is a young Jew from Czechoslovakia, trained in the arts of escape (think Harry Houdini), the other, Sammy Klayman, is a young Jew from Brooklyn, with aspirations of being a novelist. One worries about his family back in Europe, the other struggles with his sexuality, alternating between cautious acceptance and the socially-prescribed denial of the era. As with other Chabon novels, there are broad “Jewish” themes of exile, suffering, and redemption, which make an interesting subtext.
To me, the joy of this novel is the inventiveness with which Chabon has his heroes playing out their psyches and backstories on the nine-paneled page, as they struggle with guilt, a sense of identity, love, friendship, and failure. His ability to evoke the imagery of classic comics in prose is impressive, and reminds us of the ineffable power that visuals hold over both creator and devotee, even hampered by the stilted “sock! bam! pow!” conventions of the early days. A less graceful writer might have stamped out an empty nostalgia trip, but Chabon, in celebrating the earnest constructive spirit of young men in a new field of expression, crafts an ecstatic secret history of one rapidly evolving. It’s not often that words are worth a thousand pictures.
Well, for the first third of the book, anyway. Once the young duo achieves its meteoric rise and begins settling into comfortable lives of regular paychecks and predictable comforts, the novel begins to sag and its character studies to feel a little superficial and plodding (but impeccably written). Luckily, an engaging interlude involving a little known-theater of World War Two shakes things up for a while at the two-thirds mark (though it’s largely superfluous to the main story, and felt like Chabon just needed the writerly equivalent of an excuse to get out of the building and run around for a bit). After that, the story returns to 1950s suburbia, a dull marriage, a McCarthy-esque harassment of comic book writers, and a resolution that I found surprisingly banal. Does Chabon just not know how to end books well? I had a similar problem with the Yiddish Policemen’s Union.
Yet, as with that book, I liked the imagination and joyous construction of a place in time on display in the first half of The Amazing Adventures so much, I still think it’s worth your consideration. The audiobook might even be an improvement over the print version, with Joe and Sammy’s distinct accents brought to life, along with those of several other characters. Probably my favorite of Michael Chabon’s novels thus far.
This short, smart existential novella is a gem. After the protagonist, Soren Johansson, a devout Mormon, dies of cancer, he finds himself in a room with four other people. There, an officious demon cheerfully informs everyone that they’ve all failed to follow the one true religion (which I won’t spoil, but suffice to say, it’s not one of the obvious candidates) and consigns them all to a variety of hells.
For the protagonist, hell is a bigger-than-the-known-universe library containing every possible book (including those whose contents are just random characters, i.e. the vast majority). And the only way out, according to a posted notice, is to find the book containing one’s own life story. Hell does operate according to a few rules, which can’t be broken. There are food dispensers, which give out any meal requested. Non-carried objects return to their place at the end of each day. People who die are returned to life.
At first, Soren does what most people would do: he explores, forms relationships, tests the rules, and discusses solutions to the shared predicament. But days, then months, then years pass. The denizens of the library form societies. Soren experiences wandering and loneliness. He falls in love. Then violent religious mania hits people, and hell really does become hell. So, he escapes to deeper levels, in search of both his lost lover and answers.
I won’t give away what happens from there, but Peck does eventually make it clear that there’s no easy way out. The author’s wry sense of humor makes the haunting philosophical questions go down easy, but that won’t stop them from swirling uncomfortably in your mind later. As I see it, this is a book about what faith really means. What happens if God utterly defies all our expectations? Would we still believe? Could we let go of our belief? And I don’t think Peck is letting non-believers off the hook, either -- if we contemplate the hell of a purposeless reality, might it be better to have some ray of hope in a greater meaning, however slender?
Beautifully unsettling questions. I’m glad I spotted this one in an audible sale.
The first in this series, Altered Carbon, was all the rage a few years back. It was a gritty, hard-boiled detective story set in the 25th century, complete with pithy first person narration by sardonic tough guy male protagonist. The universe is a little reminiscent of the one in the movie Blade Runner, with powerful corporations that run everything and crime syndicates and rebel groups in the shadows. The most notable technological feature of this reality is the ability to back human consciousness up on a "cortical stack" implant, allowing people to "resleeve" in a new body if the old one gets excessively damaged. The implications of this made for some interesting twists, both in terms of plot and human themes.
In this novel, a loose sequel to Altered Carbon, Takeshi Kovacs has put aside the detective work and is back to his former trade of soldiering. He's serving as a mercenary on behalf of a corporate power battling rebel fanatics on a planet whose civilian populace is receiving the brunt of the misery and suffering. He's feeling about ready to jump ship on his contract when a pilot points Kovacs to a xenoarchaeologist in a prison camp, who knows something about a gateway leading to an ancient, derelict alien starship -- the find of the century. Can he put together a team to stake legal claim?
As with many sequels to hot first novels, the dazzle factor of the author’s style and universe has worn off a little, and this reader notices the formula a little more. For those who liked the grit, hard-boiled cynicism, manga-like universe, over-the-top sex scenes, and action movie machismo of Altered Carbon, Broken Angels brings more of that, but the characters and plot are more familiar and forgettable. While the part surrounding the entering of the long-dead ghost ship, the high point of the book, has a cool eeriness similar to the opening of the movie Alien and its own horror to deliver about the fate of a superior civilization, the story leading up this point isn’t hugely riveting. Yes, the sequences about locating a corporate backer (without being screwed over by the same), recruiting a squad of soldiers from the colorful personalities found in a pile of discarded cortical stacks, battling nanobots, and discovering what became of a previous expedition to the alien ship, were a pleasant audio distraction while I was doing yard work, a lot of other science fiction novels could have done as much. The war going on in the background had potential to be interesting, but wasn’t fleshed out much -- I suspect it will come more into play in the next book.
All in all, this is a recommendation for those who loved Altered Carbon and want to go further into the Takeshi Kovacs universe, but other readers could probably take it or leave it. Audiobook reader Todd McLaren has a square-jawed voice that suits the hard-boiled nature of Morgan's prose well and keeps it from coming across as too self-serious, but his sultry-voiced women can be a little irritating. Particularly the "sassy black girl" voice.
I can’t remember the history of the Islamic world rating more than a few pages in my high school AP World History textbook. And those pages were about the things that related directly to the story of Europe and the Americas, kthxbye. Oh, and oil.
This book is an excellent corrective for the distorted, limited picture most Americans have of the Islamic sphere, revealing it as a complex and fascinating parallel universe that had developed largely apart from Europe. This culture rose to great heights while most Europeans still lived in ignorant medieval squalor, became fragmented by Mongol invasion and the politics of empire in successive centuries, and was finally encroached upon by the modern West in the 19th and 20th centuries, an encounter that it’s still in turmoil from.
Tamim Ansary, an author and lecturer, turns a millenium plus into an informal, engaging narrative, as a good professor would. There’s even some humor (“pointing his cannons at Parliament and blowing it up was just the shah’s way of showing that he some objections to the new agreement”). Good historical narrative doesn’t judge the past from a modern perspective, but illuminates it as a complex set of relationships that evolved over time. There are many terms here that I’d heard before and had a vague sense of the meaning of -- Sunni, Shia, Sufi, Assassin, caliphate, 12th Imam, vizier, harem, Mamluk, janissary, Safavid, Ottoman, Great Game, Raj -- but Ansary puts them all into their place.
Thus, it became easier for me to understand how Islam is often (without irony) called a “religion of peace”, while also having a warrior aspect. During and following the prophet Muhammad's life, the faithful saw themselves as creating a new vision for society, founded on peace, justice, self-discipline, religious tolerance, and egalitarian brotherhood (even sisterhood) for the once fractious people of the Arabian peninsula and the Levant. Muslims saw God’s favor as being demonstrated by their success at liberating the oppressed inhabitants of neighboring lands and God’s disfavor as being shown through military loss -- which was to have far-reaching implications.
Ansary also helped me see how Islam’s source ideas played out in attempts to codify them into a framework for daily life. Elaborate bodies of law developed and scholars saw a unity of reason and divine revelation, bringing about advances in science and mathematics, and re-introducing classical Greek logic to the world. Of course, these noble goals did not prevent the usual conflicts between higher thinking and human nature from taking root -- politics, greed, war, dynastic feuding, cultural chauvinism, overly conservative thinking -- and so Islam fragmented into different visions. Mystics, enlightened progressives, and traditionalists all found footholds in different parts the greater empires. Interesting stuff.
The latter chapters, which deal with the Muslim world’s encounter with the West, are the most revealing. I’d never fully considered how the Protestant Reformation opened the door for a culture of individualism and mercantilism, but it did, and soon European traders and bankers were making inroads into stratified empires in Asia Minor, Persia, and India, making deals that that decadent rulers couldn’t refuse and securing more and more privilege for themselves. Never underestimate the corrosive power of loans! While Muslim intellectuals and secularists came to see the future as lying in the kind of democratic, constitutional governments that the west had (as Turkey is today), a combination of cynical Western imperialism and rising fundamentalism among large, impoverished lower classes that saw their elites as selling out on God’s instructions (with no pope-like figure to intermediate), poisoned this dream in many places. Obviously, terrorism can’t be justified under any system that claims respect for the innocent, but the resentment and sense of a stolen destiny that boiled over into extremism (enabled by oil money) makes more sense to me now.
For people who enjoy history and know that there are different ways of telling it, depending on who’s in the “center” of a narrative and who comes crashing in from outside during Act Three, I can’t recommend this one highly enough.
Afterparty was a pleasant discovery for me, comparable to recent Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but less geeked-out than the former and a little snarkier than the latter.
The initial setting is a near-future Toronto. A former neuroscientist named Lyda is in a mental hospital, in the wake of a series of breakdowns. It’s about a decade after her biotech startup discovered, while trying to cure schizophrenia, a drug that enables users to experience God. Well, in a manner of speaking. More specifically, Lyda and her colleagues overdosed on the drug and each now experiences a very convincing hallucination of a heavenly spirit companion. In Lyda's case, it's a moralizing winged angel named Doctor Gloria. In more controlled doses, the drug, nicknamed Numinous, makes people feel that they're in the presence of the divine.
It’s not the only mind-altering custom drug in this future. There's now a whole subculture of print-it-at-home drug manufacture, to say nothing of what more serious organizations do with the tech. Some products have amusingly harmless effects, but some alter consciousness in disturbing ways, such as one that removes one character’s natural empathy and turns him into a temporary sociopath.
When a peculiarly troubled teenage patient shows up in the clinic, it dawns on Lyda that Numinous, which her and her colleagues swore to keep secret, is now on the street, being distributed by a strange new “church”. So, Lyda must check herself out of the hospital, evade monitoring systems, get across the border, and track down her former colleagues in the US. Her only allies are a sweetly unaware young man who thinks his consciousness resides in the aquarium toy hanging from his neck, and a crafty American ex-intelligence officer whose own mind has been scrambled by too much "focus" drug over her career. And a cat. And, of course, the amusingly huffy Doctor G, who remains invisible to everyone but Lyda.
This is definitely a smart book, asking meaningful philosophical questions about the nature of being and the implications of messing with our brains/minds. Or of messing with other people's. It's also a witty one, with cleverly written scenes, oddball characters, and a lot of snarky quips from Lyda. For example, when a drug dealer sells a seemingly effective gay-for-a-day "product" to some straight dudebros at a college frat party, she retorts, "product? Don't you mean placebo?" (Well, it made me laugh.)
The story, once it gets going, is interesting. There's also a backstory that emerges, concerning the tragic events that took place at Little Sprout (the startup) ten years ago, what became of Lyda's wife and fellow scientist, who took too much Numinous, how Lyda ended up in the mental hospital, and what happened to her daughter, who she had to give up for adoption. While Gregory doesn’t posit a drastically altered future, I also enjoyed the creative, incidental little ideas that he drops in here and there, such as a plausible successor to smart phones. Like the plot of a good thriller, all the pieces come together in the end, but with some room for taking the characters and setup further, should he choose to.
If there are a few believability issues and the ending is a little predictable, it’s a thriller with a brain and an eye on an approaching bend in the road ahead. And the core questions -- if there is a better us inside ourselves, should we try to access it by tampering with ourselves? Or should we not? Is “divine experience” more about the divine, or the experience? -- are ones that Gregory keeps hovering in our peripheral vision throughout the book, but admirably never tries to answer for us.
Last Dragon falls into a space somewhere between straightforward genre fantasy and literary fiction, which is probably why not too many readers have noticed it. The bones of the plot have a lot in common with the former: there’s a teenage girl, destined to become an Empress (which we know because she’s writing an epistolary from her older years), who leaves her nomadic people to seek blood justice against her grandfather, who has murdered her family and most of the rest of her village, then fled. Along with her slightly-older uncle, who is now technically the village shaman, she travels over the mountains and enters the more civilized, darker-skinned country to the south.
As we might expect, the young Zhan will find companions on the road who have their own histories and purposes, learn about the wider world, discover that the truth is more complex than the one she began with, and get sucked into a war that comes back to her people. Not everyone’s stories, when fully revealed, will be quite as they seem. Several of the main characters have an ambiguous quality to them.
Unlike a lot of fantasy, which tends to proceed in a linear way, Zhan’s tale is expressed in semi-ordered, dreamlike fragments, concentrating less on genre tropes, and more on how humans reveal themselves in their interactions. There are betrayals and surprises that will emerge, some of which seem to be a product of the older Zhan’s unreliable memory. There’s a definite Gene Wolfe flavor -- if The Book of the New Sun spoke to you, this probably will, too (and if you hated The Shadow of the Torturer, you’re not the audience for this book). The format can be a little confusing, but there were enough contextual hints for me to mostly keep track of the plot.
But, man, McDermott can write. I loved the sparse, delicate beauty of the prose, and the haunting imagery that fills the book. Camp fires made from an intoxicating weed that grows in the mountains. A language that considers a bird to be any creature that sings. Ancient dragons that onced imparted their preternatural wisdom to a nation, an order of paladin who sacrificed their own lives to maintain the great creatures, and black-skinned soldiers from the south, who brought an end to this order (and many others) with their musketry. Ants that crawl in the masonry of a great city, and come to play their own disquieting role. An old warrior, from a place where different tribes modify their bodies to pay homage to different animals, telling a blend of personal and tall tales from childhood, which include a moment where a storm drops fish from the sky on a column of captives. There’s an ambiguity and bleakness to the main story, which ends unhappily for most in it, but it’s told in such a lovely way, including Cori Samuels’s English-accented audio narration.
Not everyone will like this book. If you prefer novels to have a clear plot resolution, with all the characters’ motives fully revealed, you should probably look elsewhere. However, if you accept that books can be puzzles, with meanings that are hinted at through allegorical imagery and invocation of themes, Last Dragon is worthy of your time. While the novel sometimes loses itself in its own dreamlike gauziness and structural experimentation, and perhaps a few of the author’s ideas and characters could have been developed a little more, it’s an impressive first novel.
This is one of those books I had to read for class in high school, but which was somewhat wasted on me at the time. I didn’t know enough about history and adult psychology to really appreciate Doctorow’s portrait of the roiling, chaotic, ever unsatisfied nature of turn-of-the-20th century America, with its class struggles, expanding immigrant population, media celebrities and their sordid scandals, racism, squalor, and energetic search for something better.
This is a novel where the author’s technique shines as much as his story or characters. Assuming an omniscient, godlike point of view that seems to pay homage to John Dos Passo’s America Trilogy, Doctorow swoops above the day, taking in the events of the newspaper headlines, then zooming down into dining rooms, meeting halls, and bedrooms, for a closer look into his characters lives, then diving into their thoughts and emotions, before flying away again. This approach creates a sense of urgency and burgeoning unrest, not surprising in a novel written soon after the late 1960s.
The story blends history with the lives of a fictional middle-class white family in a New York City suburb, who are named only as Father, Mother, Younger Brother, and The Boy. The bourgeois Father owns a business that sells patriotic supplies, and joins Robert Peary on his expedition to the North Pole, which seems to mark an apex of Father’s life. Younger Brother is a troubled young man who obsesses over an equally troubled young starlet, the real Evelyn Nesbit, and loses himself in designing fireworks, then in radicalism. When Mother takes in a young, unwed black women and her infant, the family becomes involved with a successful, cultured black pianist named Coalhouse Walker, who refuses to back down from his demands for redress after his car is vandalized by a racist fire chief. Things escalate, and the Family finds itself connected to a righteous terrorist, who acts out a fantasy that many blacks at the time probably had.
This central plot, though absorbing, is only an eye of the storm for the rest of the book. Doctorow spends as much time with other figures, fictional or historical, whose energies intersect and rise into the same sublime madness. An immigrant Jew living in the slums of New Yorks, who struggles after a better life for his daughter and is pulled towards a new industry. Anarchist labor organizer Emma Goldman, who gives a scathing critique of capitalist society and its moral hypocrisies. Plutocrat J.P. Morgan, who searches for higher purpose, now that he’s achieved the pinnacle of success and found it wanting, and fellow capitalist Henry Ford, who gives a folksy comeuppance. Escapist artist Harry Houdini, who pushes back against his own inner emptiness with ever more dangerous and unreal stunts.
This is a brilliant book, swirling with color and energy, but also wit and insight into the psyche of America at a significant moment. There’s a strong whiff of counterculture and the kind of creative, what-if reimagining of hidden moments of history that I enjoyed in Doctorow’s Civil War novel The March. Readers who dislike the cinematic, somewhat fanciful staging of such scenes, or prefer a more conventional, grounded plot might not enjoy this book, but I’d recommend Ragtime to anyone who wants to better understand the US, or this time period in particular.
Doctorow, who obviously isn’t a trained voice actor, narrates his own audiobook. The recording isn’t of great quality, being a little muffled in places and making him sound like he has a cold. Still, I appreciated knowing that all the verbal emphasis in the reading was just as the author intended.
This is a fun little anthology. All the pieces here revolve around the same premise: the idea that there's a machine that can predict a person's death from a blood sample, spitting out its answer on a small card. The machine sometimes words its oracular messages in an ambiguous or poetic way, but it's never wrong. If it predicts that you'll die by drowning, moving to the desert won't save you -- you'll just die in the shower or by choking on a drink. Perhaps, like Oedipus, you might even suffer the paradoxical fate of being doomed by your attempt to escape fate.
Naturally, there are a number of logical, philosophical, and moral implications that can arise from the premise, and the various authors get pretty creative in exploring them. How would you act if you knew your death? What if your friends or family knew? What if your government knew? A few pieces are set in the present day, but the genres of most of the others run the gamut from sci-fi to dystopian to fantasy to zombie horror to time travel to Sherlock Holmes. There's even a choose-your-own-adventure. The most interesting ones, for my money, tend to weave in some other issue.
The tone of the stories ranges a lot as well. Some are witty, some are serious, some dark, some absurd, some poignant, some melancholy, and some cryptic. Some feature better writing than others, but there was a good deal of talent and imagination on display. Similarly, the various audiobook readers range from competent-but-unremarkable to skilled. I particularly enjoyed the voices done by the guy who narrated the story told from the point of view of an orc.
In sum, a collection I could recommend to any adult who enjoys creative short fiction (I say "adult" because of some profanity and a few grown-up topics). I would note that this is the followup to any earlier anthology, called Machine of Death. I haven't read that one, but the grapevine (well, the Internet) says that this is the more inventive of the two.
There aren't a lot of sci-fi/fantasy writers who use Africa as a primary setting, but Nnedi Okorafor is a noteworthy voice in this small subgenre. I enjoyed 2010's post-apocalypse coming-of-age, Who Fears Death, though I found the plot a little disjointed. Lagoon, her most recent work, shows her strengthening her skills as a writer and storyteller.
Here, when aliens come to set up a new home on Earth, they don't pick New York, London, or Tokyo, but land their ship in the ocean near Lagos, Nigeria, flooding the coast. Immediately, their technology, which is advanced to the point of near-magic, begins to wreak changes on the local marine life. For reasons that don't become clear until later, three people, strangers to each other, a marine biologist named Adaora, a popular Ghanaian rapper named Anthony, and a soldier named Agu, are attracted to the beach. A wave pulls them all into the water, and some time later, they return with a fourth individual, an ambassador from the aliens who has taken human form.
At this point, had the story been set in the US, the government would have swooped in, set up a tight military cordon and whisked away the visitor. But, this is Nigeria. Instead, Adaora conducts a few tests, footage ends up on the internet, and different parties, from a charlatan witch-hunting preacher to some enterprising kidnappers to a unit of trigger-happy soldiers, converge on the scene. Meanwhile, the strange events unleash religious fervor, rioting, and other chaos throughout Lagos. The aliens, like gods, can be benevolent in their way, but also seem to be judging humanity and are dangerous when provoked.
This definitely isn't conventional sci-fi. There are some strong mystical elements to the story, which lend it, at times, a magic realist flavor reminiscent of Salman Rushdie. The aliens, it seems, have awakened old spirits and powers lurking just beneath the skin of Lagos (including a man-eating road!). I very much enjoyed the colorful writing and the honesty about Nigeria's conflicted, multifaceted personality that emerged in the book's many short vignettes, each from the perspective of a different denizen of the city. Okorafor's creativity especially shines in the sequences devoted to animals changed by the aliens' energies. Audiobook narrators, Adjoa Andoh and Ben Onwukwe, who do an astonishing range of accents, demonstrate just how much the spoken-word experience can enhance a book.
It's not that there weren't annoyances, though. The central plot, which concerned the main characters' mission to get through the chaos to meet up with Nigeria's ailing president, gets a little tedious in its one-thing-after-another action overload. Also, the author over-relies on the device of having many of her characters coincidentally know other characters who are important to the story. And, as much as I loved the voice actors, some of their accent were incomprehensible to me. The pidgin English dialect was like listening to an amped-up Jar Jar Binks.
Still, the overall theme of human worthiness of redemption, in the face of our many abuses of nature and one other, resonated for me. Okorafor is one to keep an eye on. The same (well, ear) goes for Andoh and Onwukwe.
There’s virtually nothing in Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song that fantasy readers haven’t seen before. Vaguely European medieval world? Check. Protagonist with a special magical gift? Check. Walled-off academy wherein a young protagonist learns many diverse arts? Check. A set of religious/mystical Orders that safeguard the realm and its affairs? Barbarians in the north? Hidden secret Order? Check, check, check.
Yet, this is a confident, unapologetically traditional novel that will likely please fans of military and warrior epics. Ryan, to his credit, doesn’t go in for a lot of world-building or the potential flab of multiple character perspectives. Other than the framing device of introducing the story from the perspective of a scribe from a southern empire, who interviews the now-legendary captive, Vaelin al Sorna, much of the narrative follows the experiences of the man himself. As we soon learn, Vaelin was left as a boy by his father at the gates of the Sixth Order, which trains warriors to serve the faith, a sort of medieval Army Ranger battalion.
Roughly the first third of the novel is taken up by Vaelin’s training, an increasingly harsh series of lessons and tests. It’s a little comparable to events in Patrick Rothfuss’s popular The Name of the Wind, but this school is much more martial than university-like. It’s stuff we’ve seen before, but I enjoyed watching Vaelin and his fellows grow in skill and maturity, with glimpses of the outside world and its issues, which occasionally intrude on their training.
Most good military fiction involves the hero learning, over many bloody battles, that the purity of the warrior’s ethos doesn’t always align with the slimy nature of realpolitik. This is true here. As he graduates from his final test, Vaelin finds himself falling into the favor of a manipulative, ambitious king, who sends him on sham missions against an insurgency of heretics in the north, then into actual set battles against the empire to the south, for reasons that sound worthy on paper but reek of the king’s self-interest.
While the too-noble-for-this-war-too-dutiful-to-stop-fighting-it themes are familiar, Ryan does a great job with the savage crunch and clamor of battles, and capturing the many small details of a warrior’s life and its hard disciplines. There’s a bit of droll humor, too. There’s even beauty in the writing, in the depiction of a primeval northern forest, or in a pod of orca whales pacing a ship. Fantasy can so easily crumble when modern sensibilities or glibness creep into it, but Ryan seems to recognize the importance of a believably mythic world, of keeping the basic themes simple and clear.
That said, there are weaknesses. The story suffers from a few cliches, and only a handful of characters are more than a sketch. The Princess, whose calculating nature makes it unclear whose side she’s on, is interesting, but there wasn’t very much to distinguish Vaelin’s brothers-in-arms from one another. I was a little disappointed that the Faith, so central to what the Order does, was never explained in much detail, and that the magic-related side of the plot, while seemingly important to the larger series Ryan has in mind, felt a little shoehorned into the story.
Still, such issues are to be expected in a debut and I think much of the praise from readers is warranted. If this isn’t quite the next Game of Thrones, it takes many ideas that worked well in that series and channels them into one hero and his reality. Audiobook narrator Steven Brand doesn’t do a wide range of accents, but he has a confident, unpretentious voice that fits the text. While some readers have complained about grammar issues, they weren’t evident to me in this format.
I loved The Islanders and its mysterious alternate world, even if I didn't entirely get what the book was about. I'd read that the Dream Archipelago had its origins in Priest's earlier, 1981 novel, The Affirmation, so this seemed like a fitting next step into his catalog.
The novel is about a young man named Peter Sinclair, whose life has fallen apart after the death of his father, a romantic dissolution, and the loss of his job to a bad economy (there's a palpable sense of Thatcher-era British malaise). Peter sets out to find new inner peace by moving into an old house recently purchased by a family friend out in the country, and fixing it up for the man and his wife. While engaged in this, Peter decides to write a memoir of his life. Then, he decides to rewrite it, first changing a few details to be more to his liking, then going all the way into a fantasy world.
At this point, it becomes clear that Peter may not be well, and that some of what he's told us so far might not be so reliable. Then, the book switches gears, and we're reading about the life of another Peter Sinclair, who lives in the world of the Dream Archipelago, which is technologically similar to ours, but has entirely different geography and countries, and a few science fiction-y elements. We learn that the alternate Peter has won a lottery that grants him life extension treatment, requiring him to make a trip by sea into the Archipelago (which has politically distanced itself from the main continent because of an ongoing war there). But, there are some costs, such as total amnesia and a subsequent “rebirth”.
Gradually, the two halves of the story begin to show some parallels, such as the romantic relationships with Gracia/Seri (in each world). Then they begin to reference each other, through the manuscript Peter is working on/carrying with him in each reality, then, ultimately, to merge. Readers have made comparisons to Murakami and other magic realist authors, but I was also reminded of Julian Barnes’s excellent The Sense of an Ending, which was also very “English” in its sensibilities and also turned on the narrator’s memory and understanding of events not being totally dependable.
This is a novel that invites different interpretations. On one level, it could simply be about a man’s harrowing descent into mental illness, the fantasies in his head becoming as real as reality. On another, it could be about a misguided recovery of memory. But The Affirmation is also a Cloud Atlas-like work of literary experimentation, the creation-within-a-creation structure looping back on itself. If you enjoy having your mind blown, pay close attention to events in the last chapters. This is a book that invites a second read, once the final twist becomes clear.
While The Affirmation’s “real world” story is a little depressing, with its references to suicide and psychological breakdown, I was pleased to return to the Dream Archipelago and learn more about its workings. Perhaps I should revisit the Islanders and see if this book has shed any new light on happenings in that one. I also look forward to reading Priest’s story collection, The Dream Archipelago.
I don’t have much to say on the audiobook, except that Michael Maloney reads with a quiet intensity that I thought was a perfect fit for Peter’s voice.
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