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- Aubrey-Maturin Series, Book 9
- By: Patrick O'Brian
- Narrated by: Ric Jerrom
- Length: 12 hrs and 33 mins
While Captain Aubrey worries about repairs to his ship, Stephen Maturin assumes the centre stage; for the dockyards and salons of Malta are alive with Napoleon's agents, and the admiralty's intelligence network is compromised. Maturin's cunning is the sole bulwark against sabotage of Aubrey's daring mission. All of Patrick O'Brian's strengths are on parade in this novel of action and intrigue, set partly in Malta, partly in the treacherous, pirate-infested waters of the Red Sea.
Espionage, temptation, and "secret" missions
- By Jefferson on 02-12-19
Espionage, temptation, and "secret" missions
The first chapter of Treason's Harbour (1983), the 9th novel in Patrick O’Brian's wonderful Aubrey-Maturin series, brings readers new to the saga up to speed by profiling Jack Aubrey and his bosom friend Stephen Maturin via the narrative trick of having Stephen observe Jack while a French intelligence-agent (Lesueur) observes Stephen. Jack is a 100% English, blond, ox-like, noisy, open, good-natured, music-loving Royal Navy Captain who's heroic at sea and foolish ashore, while Stephen is a half-Catalan, half-Irish, dark, small, discreet, mordant, music-loving surgeon/spy/naturalist who's clumsy at sea and masterful ashore. By the end of the 8th novel, The Ionian Mission (1981), Jack and Stephen had scored big wins for the Turks and Brits in the war against France (Stephen hating the tyranny of Napoleon while turning a blind eye to England's own tyranny of India for example), and as this one begins they're still in the Mediterranean, stuck on Malta while Jack's ships are being repaired by "Slow devious stupid corrupt incompetent officials, tradesmen and artificers." The capable governor of Malta has been replaced with a dangerous fool, the island is teeming with spies, and Andrew Wray, who, ever since Jack once accused him of cheating at cards has been strangling Jack's career, has come to the island as the acting second secretary of the Admiralty. The friends' entertainment revolves around a beautiful Neapolitan woman, Mrs. Laura Fielding, who is teaching Jack Italian and flirting with Stephen and hosting both at her musical evenings. In fact she's working for the French, who have pressured her to get close to the friends by reminding her of her Royal Navy lieutenant husband being kept in a French prison under threat of death.
In addition to efficiently introducing Jack and Stephen, their adversaries, and the political situation, the first chapter provides interesting thoughts on mood and culture, humorous scenes involving Stephen and a horsefly and Jack and a giant dog, and vivid descriptions of the shining cityscape of Valletta on Malta. And the novel continues that way, an enriching and entertaining pleasure: Napoleonic Age of Sail adult comfort food with historical accuracy, human insights, interesting events, and savory characters.
Here are some examples of O’Brian’s witty, literate writing describing
--sailing: “the frigate's wake streamed away and away from him, dead white in the troubled green, so white, that the gulls poising and swooping over it looked quite dingy."
"Maturin, when playing cards, was not the most amiable of mortals."
“camels as composed as cats.”
“Now they had slowed to a walk, the air was still and the heat reverberated from the shimmering walls of the town, while the climbing sun, low in the west but still ferociously strong, beat full on his back.”
“Some of my best friends are Englishmen. . . Yet even the most valuable have this same vicious inclination to make a confused bellowing whenever happy. It is harmless enough in their own country, where the diet deadens the sensibilities, but it travels badly.”
Readers impatient for exciting action (especially naval) may not enjoy O’Brian’s leisurely pacing, as Jack and Stephen spend the majority of this novel ashore and engage in more conversation than battles. Readers who enjoy character and style and details about early 19th-century nautical affairs and espionage, here in the Mediterranean and Red Sea, with strong flavors from the Ottoman Empire and the Arabic world (Janissaries, Ramadan, sherbet, water tobacco, cushions, camels, ghouls, sand, heat, etc.), should enjoy the novel. Moreover, although action scenes are rare, when O’Brian writes them they are cinematic, suspenseful, and unpredictable, as in a brief, climactic fight involving a coast, rocks, ships, canons, and sailing. And O’Brian does write scenes of sublime or exhilarating or meditative seas and skies and sails and ships.
But this book is very much about espionage, taking its simple principle--to obtain information and deny it to the enemy--and complicating it with human nature, the uncooperative and proliferating state of the French and British intelligence organizations, and the tricky web of international relations between the two powers and the many other countries caught up in their war. Indeed, the flaw (for this reader) in the novel is related to the matter of intelligence. It may be due to O’Brian revealing Wray's perfidy to the reader early on, but I kept thinking that given Stephen's experience, wisdom, keen observation, and suspicious nature he'd surely suspect Wray more than he does.
O’Brian’s series reads like a single composite novel. Therefore, although the books more or less stand on their own, they do benefit from being read in order as a set, and some are less independent than others. Among the first nine novels in the series I've read so far, I’ve found a few story-arcs oriented around different theaters in the war between the UK and France and different stages in Jack’s career, and this 9th book ends in the middle of a developing arc, leaving some issues unresolved: Will Stephen discover “the Judas” leaking secret mission details to the French? Will Jack get a big ship to captain in the American theater? Thus readers who like the series will quickly want to go on to the 10th novel and readers new to the work should probably start with the splendid first book, Master and Commander (1969).
Ric Jerrom continues to be the only reader I can imagine for the audiobooks, effortlessly doing Jack and Stephen’s very different voices as well as those of a host of other characters, whether male or female, English or foreign, young or old, coarse or cultured, cool or slimy, angry or happy, speaking or singing, etc.
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- New Crobuzon, Book 3
- By: China Mieville
- Narrated by: Gildart Jackson
- Length: 21 hrs and 4 mins
It is a time of wars and revolutions, conflict and intrigue. New Crobuzon is being ripped apart from without and within. War with the shadowy city-state of Tesh and rioting on the streets at home are pushing the teeming city to the brink. A mysterious masked figure spurs strange rebellion, while treachery and violence incubate in unexpected places. In desperation, a small group of renegades escapes from the city and crosses strange and alien continents in the search for a lost hope.
Very Close to the First
- By Tim on 03-11-16
“we were, we are, we will be.”
Following Perdido Street Station (2000) and The Scar (2002), China Mieville's third Bas-Lag novel, Iron Council (2004), occurs at least 20 years after the events of the first book. All is not well in New Crobuzon, the powerful, vast city-state featured in Perdido Street Station. The city has been locked in an endless war against Tesh, a rival city-state on the other side of the world where the laws of physics and magic are different; horribly wounded veterans are sapping morale; the brutal militia are clamping down on insurrectionists; factions (like the xenophobic bowler-hat wearing Quillers) are attacking inhabitants they dislike (like the scarab-headed Khepri); and gangsters are ever active.
What is the Iron Council? It takes many pages to find out. That's because we first read a lot about a merchant called Cutter in the wilderness leading a small band of insurrectionists on an epic journey trying to catch up with the man he loves, Judah Lowe, a powerful golemetrist seeking the Council, and then about a naïve laborer called Ori in New Crobuzon leaving his all talk and no action ("too much yammer, not enough hammer") dissident group to join the rebel crime lord Toro. Then we plunge into a lengthy flashback (the best part of the novel) relating how about twenty years ago Judah became an idealistic autodidact golemetrist. Eventually we learn that a visionary New Crobuzon tycoon was pursuing his holy mission to push his Transcontinental Railroad Trust across the continent from coast to coast when the workers (including Remade slave laborers), camp followers (including prostitutes), and assorted TRT scientists and mages, mutinied over absent pay, took the train, and turned it into a “feral perpetual train,” pulling up track behind and laying it down before, unbuckling the past and making the future, making a contingent moment of railroad, “a rolling democracy. A Remade arcadia”: Iron Council.
The novel is full of Mieville’s fertile imagination, usually at work making monstrous chimera, whether natural or artificial. His chimerical imagination drives his approach to genre, as this novel combines genres like epic fantasy, science fiction, horror, western, exploration adventure, political fable, crime caper, and same-sex romance. Technology rubs shoulders with thamaturgy, “normal” humans kiss Remade humans, and divine and semi-divine beings show up now and then.
I like his exploration of the science and magic of golemetry (an intervention in the natural still state of inanimate matter so as to shift it into another form that moves with a kind of sentience), his conception of the perpetual train “renegapolis,” his audacious attempt at a climax interruptus, his politicizing of things like love, theater, war, justice, and capitalism, his avoidance of cheap sentimentality, his refusal to make his readers feel good, but instead to challenge them and provoke them and stir them up in constructive ways.
Mieville can write. When he gets going on a poetic riff, whether sublime or profane, he really goes: "Elsie remembered the air burials she had heard of among northern tribes, women and men of the tundra, who let their dead rest in open coffins under balloons, sent them skywards through the cold air and clouds, to drift in air streams way above the depredations of insects or birds or rot itself, so the stratosphere over their hunt lands was a catacombs, where explorers by dirigible encountered none but the frost mummified dead."
He fashions myriad cool, grotesque, and or beautiful things, like a monk who literally trades something he/she knows in return for something hidden or lost, the Stiltspear marsh people who chant their prey still, a "susurrator" who controls people by whispering in their minds, five-fingered military handlingerer parasites who wear animal or human bodies, elementarii who command elemental monsters, kinetiphage motion demons who gorge on sounds, and golems made of shadow, light, air, sound, and time. Mieville details all those and many more with a feverish poetic flair.
In fact, that becomes a problem. As Cutter muses at one point when he’s traveling through the Cacotopic Stain, a dread unmapped region where land and air and time are sick, “where monsters are made . . . a viral landscape . . . of pathological parturition," "We don't even see it no more. . . You can get used to the most monstrous absurdity." So Mieville's profligate imagination for monstrous chimeras begins to numb, as when he describes a sublime and scary moonlight elemental and then botches it by making it a fish-bear-rat-horned-firefly-deathmoth thing.
Moreover, although New Crobuzon is a vivid creation, a vibrant and decadent city with districts, towers, trains, repressive government, and motley population comprised of garden variety humans, arcane races (including cactus people, aquatic people, and beetle people), the Remade (criminals sent to punishment factories to gain all manner of grotesque animal, insectoid, and machine appendages), and singers, scientists, thamaturges, laborers, dissidents, merchants, militia, and so on we have been there before in Perdido Street Station, and its coolness wears a little thin here. And although Cutter and Judah are great (and sf-fantasy novels could use more homosexual or bisexual main characters like them), Iron Council hosts fewer compelling characters than Perdido Street Station and The Scar.
People who like Mieville’s first two Bas-Lag books should like this one. People new to Mieville should start with either of the earlier books. People who like weird sf that melds multiple genres, who like to view the world as a political creation, and who appreciate rich prose should like this book.
The audiobook reader Gildart Jackson does a professional job voicing all the many different kinds of characters in different kinds of moods.
- The Weirdstone Trilogy, Book 3
- By: Alan Garner
- Narrated by: Robert Powell
- Length: 4 hrs and 56 mins
Boneland is Alan Garner’s continuation of the story thread which began in his first and enduringly popular fantasy children’s novel, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, published in 1960, it has never been out of print. The Moon of Gomrath followed in 1963 taking the story further with the same two children, Colin and Susan. But Boneland is particularly fascinating because it takes the story into adulthood, with Colin again the main proponent.
“I'm for uncertainty”
- By Jefferson on 02-06-19
“I'm for uncertainty”
As Alan Garner's Boneland (2012) begins, a man called Colin Whisterfield discharges himself from a Cheshire hospital, gets into a taxi driven by a solicitous down to earth guy called Burt, and goes home to Church Quarry and his kit-made hut, where he falls asleep. The story then shifts to an anonymous stone-age man watching stars, carving a bull in a rock, finding a woman and a child encased in ice and exposing them to the birds, and having visions of riding Grey Wolf. Is the man Colin's dream, or Colin's ancestor, or Colin time slipping, or simply (!?) a man doing things 10,000 years ago that are thematically equivalent to Colin in the present? Shifting back to Colin, the story depicts him trying to return to work during sick leave (he's an astrophysicist using a cutting edge radio telescope array called MERLIN and a computer nicknamed Arthur to investigate the Pleiades) and starting to see a psychologist called Meg, who has a quick wit, a warm sympathy, and an eclectic library. Colin has been diagnosed by his previous doctors as "an immature, uncooperative, hysterical, depressive, Asperger's, with an IQ off the clock," but Meg reckons his problems stem from missing twin syndrome and selective amnesia possibly due to some head trauma in his past. And when Colin starts hearing his long lost twin sister's voice while listening to the telescope and Meg starts asking challenging questions (like "have you ever been struck by lightning?") and giving scary advice (like, "go to where it hurts most"), and the stone age man starts realizing that he's aging and alone and better carve a woman into the world to bear him a child to whom to teach the vital dancing, singing, and stone carving to ensure the continuance of the world, the novel moves into intense terrain.
Boneland is the long-delayed (50 years!) concluding volume in a trilogy that Garner began with The Weirdstone of Brisingamen (1960) and The Moon of Gomrath (1963), in which Colin and his twin Susan experience scary and exciting adventures involving an important stone, a quarry, a witch, a wizard, dwarves, crows, tunnels, Arthurian sleepers in a mountain, and the like. But the later novel is not a simple continuation of the plot and surely not of the style, genre, or narrative technique of the earlier ones. Instead, it feels closer to Garner's Stone Book Quartet (1976-78), in its terse, poetic, vivid, elliptical, and challenging style and narrative technique and its emphasis on the persisting power of place and craft and stone and stars. But Boneland is much more openly interested in psychology and psychiatry than his earlier Cheshire books.
As I read Boneland, in addition to the connection between the stone-age man and contemporary Colin, I wondered about things like, What happened to Susan, with whom he adventured in the first two books? Why can't he remember anything from before he was 13 (Garner's effective, if perverse way to avoid easy linking of this third book to the first two in the "trilogy")? Why did Garner decide to write this third book so many years after the second one? I feel that this novel cannot comfortably stand on its own, but also that it is so different from the first two that it seems another animal. It is bold to complete a children's fantasy trilogy by writing an adult third book about the child protagonist as a middle-aged man who fears he is mad and can't remember his childhood experiences!
The prose is amazing, especially in the hypnotic stone-age passages like this one:
“He sat up on the shoulder. The Grey Wolf struck the damp earth and ran, higher than the trees, lower than the clouds, and each leap measured a mile; from his feet flint flew, spring sprouted, lake surged and mixed with gravel dirt, and birch bent to the ground. Hare crouched, boar bristled, crow called, owl woke, and stag began to bell. And the Grey Wolf stopped. They were at the Hill of Death and Life.”
And there is plenty of great writing in the present passages as well: neat lines ("Similes are for cowards"), fine emotion ("Wrench by wrench Colin's tears turned to dew on his cheek"), savory Cheshire dialect ("You've got a right cob on"), and vivid descriptions ("Stone thrust out. Below the scarp was tumbled with boulders to the land beneath. The brindled fields stretched to the hills").
Garner's compact novel also features plenty of content, interesting ideas about science and art, mythology and psychology, memory and time, the connection between past and present and place, the truth of fairy tales (and legends and myths), the loss of something precious in contemporary life, and so on. In addition to the visionary poetry of the stone-age passages, there are many sublime moments in the present, like when Colin shows Meg some goblin gold or gazes into a half a million or so years old black stone axe that contains stars and creation and is the first step towards the radio telescope.
Colin, Meg, and Burt are all appealing characters.
The audiobook reader, Robert Powell, is superb. The audiobook production uses a slight echo effect for the stone-age passages, to make them sound sacred.
I recommend the novel, but warn readers who loved the first two books not to expect a typical trilogy continuation and conclusion. I did find the Stone Book Quartet more satisfying. It's as if finally in Boneland we're being told the adventures in the first two books may or may not have happened, depending on our viewpoint. Perhaps because Colin and presumably Garner are "for uncertainty," believing that "all discovery is play" that "never finishes," that "there are no final answers," that time is multi-linear, and that "faith is the only truth, belief the only reality," the ending of the novel is ambiguous and difficult (for this reader) to pin down.
But it does end with Meg's grail questions ringing in our ears: "What is this thing? What does it mean? Whom does it serve?"
The Throne of Bones
- By: Brian McNaughton
- Narrated by: Wayne June
- Length: 13 hrs and 59 mins
This book won a World Fantasy Award. It's remarkable: The stories are rich, fascinating stuff - creepy and unsettling and phantasmic. Imagine what Tolkien's Lord of the Rings would have been like if Tolkien had tried to tell that story sympathetically from the point of view of the human denizens of Mordor and you'll have the slightest sense of what you're about to wade into... but only just a sense.
I had a visceral reaction to this book!
- By Joseph on 06-05-15
"How could such things be?"
Brian McNaughton's World Fantasy Award-winning collection of mordant epic horror tales, The Throne of Bones (1997), is set in a world of decadent cities like Crotalorn (home of the Dreamers’ Hill necropolis), Sythiphore (home of piscine eroticists), and Fandragord (home of evil) where aristocrats, scholars, cultists, poets, prostitutes, barbarians, necromancers, the undead, ghouls, and the like pursue love, art, life, and death. The stories read like a meld of Clark Ashton Smith, H. P. Lovecraft, Robert E. Howard, Jack Vance, and Tannith Lee, all informed by McNaughton's voice and vision.
If McNaughton’s work is macabre, with graphic sex and violence aplenty, it is also funny, delighting in the human comedy, especially via dramatic irony (e.g., when a mob thinks they’re rescuing a child from a ghoul), and in the well-turned phrase or the piquant word (e.g., "This apparently caused him to miss a fire or massacre or other popular diversion, for when he emerged in the evening, the street outside his house pullulated with quidnuncs"). His stories are moral, for his anti-heroes receive fitting fates, and honest, for his people face biting truths, as when a ghoul hears from a corpse she's eaten, "I knew life and love and happiness. Now I shall know peace. Will you ever say such things?"
McNaughton’s rich style ranges from romantic beauty (e.g., "Her hair was the color of rain when the sun shines") to gruesome horror (e.g., “The fabric of the real world had parted as easily as an old corpse’s shroud, dropping him into an unknown abyss, and he screamed like one falling as he thrust himself from the reeking heap in his bed"). He writes evocative names (e.g., Vomikron, Asteriel, and Crondard), quotable lines (e.g., “the gods love to bestow useless gifts"), choice similes (e.g., "his unruly mind frisked toward that filth like a puppy”), and vivid descriptions (e.g., “Beyond the Vendren palace, a full third of the sky was gripped by an electrical cataclysm. Dragons of flame writhed among three cloudy continents, whipped above them, exploded behind them. Not a whisper of thunder reached him, and a deformed moon drowsed overhead, but the breeze scurried this way and that in timid confusion”).
Wayne June is the ideal reader for the audiobook, wielding his resonant voice with perfect pace, emphasis, and clarity. His ghouls sound like growling dogs and rasping metal, and he does prime laughs, from a necromancer’s “steam kettle” to an aristocrat’s “eructations of a clogged drain.”
Here is an annotated list of the stories:
1. Ringard and Dendra
"Botany is no field for the squeamish."
Featuring a wood carver with an affinity for trees, a free-spirited aristocratic daughter, an amoral botanical wizard, and a brutal religious cult, the story is appalling and moving.
2. The Throne of Bones
"I want to be a ghoul, don't you?"
The six linked short stories of this novella relate Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Ghouls* (*But Were Afraid to Ask). Like his undead, McNaughton's ghouls exaggerate human qualities: beneath our human veneer lurks a ghoul.
2-1. Lord Glyphtard’s Tale
"As a child, I was told not to gather souvenirs from the cemetery."
This story has it all: cannibalism, rape, necrophilia, inter-species sex, graphic violence (from mutilation to dismemberment), and an apt climax and resolution.
2-2. The Lecher of the Apothogem
“He would fuck the ghoul that tried to eat his corpse.”
An “artist” of dramatic “masterpieces” of rape and torture finally gets to test an off-color aphorism in an ironic, fitting fashion.
2-3. The Ghoul’s Child
"His hair was yellower than her eyes, his eyes bluer than her vestigial lips."
Gluttoria the ghouless dotes on her baby, while the King of Ghouls schemes to get rid of him. The story is full of point of view tricks (e.g., a woman waking up), dramatic irony (e.g., a fastidious pornographic poet finding love), funny touches (e.g., the child preferring liver to strawberries), and poignant moments (e.g., Gluttoria worshipping the sun).
2-4. The Scholar's Tale
"I began to entertain doubts about the wisdom of this adventure."
The unlikely Campbellian hero of this scary comedy is "old, fat, and slovenly" Dr. Porfat, a professor of “ghoulology” who experiences outré escapades involving an imbecilic Prince, a creepy Lady, a necromancer and his ward, a talking skull, and a pornographic manuscript.
2-5. How Zara Lost Her Way in the Graveyard
"This is not my mother!" he screamed. "This is a woman!"
A half-ghoul, half-human lad’s reunion with his “mother”; revelations about the pornographic poet Chalcedor; a reminder to be careful lest what you consume subsumes you; a romance between a resurrected whore and a missing scholar.
2-6. The Tale of the Zaxoin Siblings
"And I surely was no ghoul."
A bawdy comedy of manners turns into a tragedy of identity as a beautiful lady appeals to “Dr. Porfat” to save her repugnant brother from becoming a ghoul.
3. The Vendren Worm
"My trade is in that foulest of wares, truth."
The public, who conflate first person narrators with authors, believe that a "gentle and forgiving" writer of horror fantasy has murdered his wife (twice!) and sired a son on a corpse. (McNaughton often writes artists and writers as sardonic self-portraits.) The comedy turns to horror when the writer learns about a family worm.
"In the presence of wonder . . . spite was impossible."
A ghouless longs to experience human love that her ghoul lover seems ill-equipped to provide, leading to an amazing finale recalling O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi."
5. Reunion in Cephalune
“Death grants no immunity from sunburn.”
This morbidly hilarious romantic comedy sets the paths of a necrophilac necromancer, a versifying pit-fighter, and an innocent newlywed to meet at the gateway between the worlds of the living and the dead. The resolution is exquisite.
6. The Art of Tiphytsorn Glocque
"I'll teach you not to fuchsia my Art, you browns!"
It’s difficult to cause a stir in Sythiphore, but the title character does so, not by purportedly killing his fishmonger father with poisoned fish eggs, but by pursuing his body decoration "Art" with too much avant-garde fervor.
7. A Scholar from Sythiphore
“Like all men, only more so, the Giants were swine."
A skeptical "antiquarian" graverobber greedy for “the coins traditionally placed on the eyes of corpses" receives a deserved revelation.
8. Vendriel and Vendreela
"Lord Vendriel had descended to the crypt to bid farewell, in that wicked man's singular way, to his beloved mother."
To create a wife "who would be both incrorruptible and uncritical,” Vendriel the Good applies his necromancy to robbing the best features of beautiful people, artistic masterpieces, and a perfect spring day. The climax is slimy and meet.
9. The Retrograde Sorceror
"Vendriel the Good believed that he had heard everything."
A fairy tale reading concubine, an illiterate childcatcher, and a jaded necromancer-king go off to see the wizard, an immortal, reclusive, and soul-eating Archimage.
10. The Return of Liron Wolfbaiter
“Things are not what they seem lately.”
With panache an aging Conan-esque mercenary slash amateur philosopher on the run runs into a vengeful aristocratic girl, an uncanny inn, a sardonic Lord, an enthusiastic boarhound, a "philanthropist" necromancer-king, and a dead dreaming poet.
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
- By: John Scalzi
- Narrated by: Zachary Quinto
- Length: 2 hrs and 18 mins
Zachary Quinto - best known for his role as the Nimoy-approved Spock in the recent Star Trek reboot and the menacing, power-stealing serial killer, Sylar, in Heroes - brings his well-earned sci-fi credentials and simmering intensity to this audio-exclusive novella from master storyteller John Scalzi. One day, not long from now, it becomes almost impossible to murder anyone - 999 times out of a thousand, anyone who is intentionally killed comes back. How? We don't know.
Good Grief This Was Good
- By Matthew on 11-09-16
An Interesting, Entertaining, Unconvincing Novella
Written originally as an audiobook for audible in 2016, John Scalzi's "The Dispatcher" (2016) is an entertaining hardboiled urban fantasy mystery. In the not too distant future, it suddenly became the case that people who are murdered appear back in their homes naked and as whole and healthy as they were some hours before their deaths. Nobody knows the cause of this phenomenon (a miracle from God or a coincidence?), and Scalzi isn't explaining. There are complications (also unexplained). Anyone who dies from suicide or natural causes etc. is not "reset," or restored to life, and there is a small chance (1 in a 1000) that a murder victim will not resurrect. People have gotten used to this state of affairs, with some saying it proves the existence of god and others saying the opposite.
Scalzi takes his fantastic conceit and extrapolates some interesting things from it. Trained and psychologically vetted Dispatchers like Tony Valdez (the first person narrator) are sent to hospitals to sit in on risky surgeries and be ready for accident victims, etc., so that if a patient is in danger of dying or of being permanently disabled, the Dispatcher will "murder" them (dispatch them with a nitrogen capsule delivered to the brain and detonated) to save the person's life.
That is the legal way to use Dispatchers. There are also gray area ways, like when movie companies slip a Dispatcher $40 grand to kill a stunt man who received a crippling injury shooting a film, thereby ensuring the guy resets to full health and can continue working without any law suits, and then lie that the stunt man had received a mortal injury requiring him to be killed. There are more dubious private gigs, as with fight clubs in Chicago's south side where poor black guys without any futures earn $50 for maiming each other with hammers and saws etc., after which all participants are shot by moonlighting Dispatchers. And a dueling fad is sweeping universities, with students hacking at each other with bastard swords and paying Dispatchers to "clean up" accidents by killing the wounded. And rich people like to bring a Dispatcher along when they go skydiving and so on, just in case.
The story opens with the divorced dispatcher Tony sitting in on an old man's tricky surgery at a Chicago hospital. There Tony is questioned by police Detective Langdon, who's investigating the suspicious disappearance of Tony's friend and fellow Dispatcher Jimmy. Langdon (a tough, intelligent black woman) gets Tony to cooperate with her investigation, and soon he's talking with Jimmy's hostile wife, an unethical former Dispatcher colleague, an elderly wealthy member of the Chicago elite, and a member of the leading Chicago crime family (now supposedly gone legit). Soon enough Tony is way more involved in the case than he wanted to be.
As the mystery is explored Scalzi introduces some serious elements vis-à-vis race, class, and euthanasia or the right to die, Tony and Langdon make an appealing odd-couple team, and Zachary Quinto reads the audiobook with aplomb, but after finishing "The Dispatcher," questions and unconvincing things started hoving into view. First, if murder victims have been reappearing fine and dandy back in their homes for about ten years and dispatchers have been in business for at least eight (Tony is an eight-year veteran and among the first trained for the job), how the heck would a veteran police detective like Langdon be so ignorant about so many aspects of the trade (like private side gigs)? It smacks of Scalzi finding a not very convincing way to fill the reader in on everything.
Second, if, as Tony explains, he is not really murdering people when he dispatches them but rather enabling them to improve their chances to live good lives when they return from the death he gives them, and if he is just doing his job in conjunction with his Agency, insurance companies, and hospitals, etc., then it would seem that he's not in fact murdering the people he dispatches, which would mean that they should not reappear after he kills them. If people who commit suicide (to, for instance, avoid dying slowly from humiliating terminal illnesses that require grueling treatments) don't reappear after death, why would Tony's clients?
For that matter, when you think about it the entire premise is a bit strange: why do only murder victims reappear hale and whole after being killed? Perhaps Scalzi plans to explore this in future Tony Valdez stories, but in this novella the lack of explanation and the specific limitations of the "miracle" make things feel contrived.
In conclusion, the writing is readable, the concept interesting, and the audiobook entertaining, but based on reading this novella and Scalzi's Old Man's War, I won't be in a hurry to try more of his work.
The Oedipus Plays
- An Audible Original Drama
- By: Sophocles, Ian Johnston - translator
- Narrated by: Jamie Glover, Hayley Atwell, Michael Maloney, and others
- Length: 5 hrs and 5 mins
The three Theban plays by Sophocles - Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus and Antigone - are one of the great landmarks of Western theatre. They tell the story of Oedipus, King of Thebes, who was destined to suffer a terrible fate - to kill his father, marry his mother, and beget children of the incestuous union. He does this unknowingly but still has to suffer terrible consequences, which also tragically affect the next generation.
So Well Done!
- By LacyADM on 07-12-16
"...nothing more strangely wonderful than man”
The three Oedipus plays of Sophocles (from about the middle to the end of the 5th century BC) are absorbing and moving, beautiful and terrible, personal and political, and full of wisdom and irony.
The Audible production of the three plays is excellent, with stellar voice acting by all the actors and cool "Greek" music introducing or ending the plays. I know no Greek, but the three English translations by Ian Johnston are tight, natural, elevated, poetic, passionate, and clear. I was struck when listening to the Audible production how much major action (e.g., Oedipus blinding himself) occurs off-stage and is recounted on-stage by eyewitness characters or Chorus. Thus much that happens occurs in our imaginations.
Oedipus Rex begins with Oedipus as King of Thebes, having been given the position 15 or so years ago after he freed the city from the ravages of the Sphinx by solving her riddle. The people love and respect Oedipus. But all is not well, for an apocalyptic plague is being visited upon Thebes, blighting crops, killing livestock and people, and making women give birth to stillborn babies. Wanting to help his people, Oedipus has requested oracular advice, and when the oracle's message is delivered--punish the murderer of the previous king, Laius, whose empty throne Oedipus was given--Oedipus immediately curses the miscreant and vows to find him. Being a seeker after facts (and the solver of the Sphinx’ riddle), Oedipus then drives himself to find the truth, beyond reason and to his own destruction. It is morbidly fascinating to watch him unwittingly entangle himself more in his sins the more he tries to solve the mystery, adding one new piece of information at a time till it all locks into place around his neck. And because Oedipus quests in ignorance while we know his story from the start (killed his father, married his mother), this is probably the most dramatic irony filled play (or story) I've ever encountered. Until the truth is finally revealed, nearly every line that Oedipus and most of the characters speak radiates an appalling and appealing irony. In addition to demonstrating the impossibility of escaping fate, the play is about the extremes of human behavior: rage, love, violence, patricide, and maternal incest, but also forgiveness and pity.
There are many great lines in the play, like these by the Chorus:
For now we are afraid, just like those
who on a ship see their helmsman terrified.
You may be king, but I have the right
to answer you—and I control that right,
for I am not your slave.
And by Oedipus:
If I could see, I don’t know how my eyes
could look at my own father when I come
to Hades or could see my wretched mother.
The second play, Oedipus at Colonus, rehabilitates Oedipus’ image as it depicts his old age and death. It begins with the end of his years of wandering exile as a blind pariah, when his daughter Antigone leads him to the sacred grove of the Furies by the village of Colonus under the aegis of Athens. (The play is a celebration of Athens as the most god-respecting city/land.) We repeatedly hear that Oedipus killed his father and his father’s servants in self-defense, and that he committed his crimes (killing his father and sleeping with his mother) in ignorance. Interestingly, because Apollo has prophesied that Oedipus will bless the land he’s buried in, after years of shunning him, suddenly everyone wants him for his burial blessing. This in turn inflames his still lively anger (one of his tragic flaws in the first play), resulting in some choice curses for his son Polynices and uncle Creon.
The play features many wonderful moments, as when Antigone describes the sacred grove:
O father, poor tormented Oedipus,
my eyes can glimpse, off in the distance,
walls around the city. This place, it seems,
is sacred ground clustered thick with grapevines,
with laurel and olive trees. Inside the grove
many feathered nightingales are chanting
their sweet songs. Sit down and rest your limbs
on this rough stone. For a man advanced in years
you have come a long, long way.
Or as when the Chorus recounts the off-stage death of Oedipus:
Suddenly a voice called out to Oedipus.
It made the hairs on all our heads stand up—
we were so terrified! Again and again
the god cried out to him in different ways,
“You there, you, Oedipus, why this delay
in our departure? You have been lingering
for far too long.”
The third play, Antigone, is about the conflicts between male and female, society and individual, and state and family. Oedipus’ two sons have killed each other fighting a war over Thebes (more off-stage action recounted on-stage), resulting in a decree by Creon, ruler of Thebes, that the corpse of the older son Polynices (who brought an army from Argos to try to remove his usurping younger brother from power in Thebes) be left for the crows and dogs without receiving burial rites. Antigone determines to bury her brother anyhow, thus enraging Creon. So sympathetic in Oedipus Rex, Creon is tyrannical and misogynistic here. He says things like, "No woman is going to govern me," and “We must obey/ whatever man the city puts in charge,/ no matter what the issue--great or small,/ just or unjust.”
There are many powerful lines in this play, as when Creon’s surprisingly wise young son Haemon tries to get his father to loosen up:
For any man,
even if he’s wise, there’s nothing shameful
in learning many things, staying flexible.
You notice how in winter floods the trees
which bend before the storm preserve their twigs.
The ones who stand against it are destroyed,
root and branch. In the same way, those sailors
who keep their sails stretched tight, never easing off,
make their ship capsize—and from that point on
sail with their rowing benches all submerged.
So end your anger. Permit yourself to change.
Anyone interested in the best and worst of families, cities, human nature, and life, and anyone who likes classic drama, should like this version of Sophocles’ trilogy.
Planet of Adventure
- City of the Chasch, Servants of the Wankh, The Dirdir, The Pnume: The Tschai, Planet of Adventure
- By: Jack Vance
- Narrated by: Elijah Alexander
- Length: 23 hrs and 3 mins
Stranded on the distant planet Tschai, young Adam Reith is the sole survivor of a space mission who discovers the world is inhabited - not only by warring alien cultures but by human slaves as well, taken early in Earth's history. Reith must find a way off the planet to warn Earth of Tschai's deadly existence.
- By James Weaver on 03-16-16
"his new life. . . held zest and adventure"
Planet of Adventure is a set of four short novels by Jack Vance: City of the Chasch (1968), Servants of the Wankh (1969), The Dirdir (1969), and The Pnume (1970). They depict the adventures of a resourceful earthman, Adam Reith, as he attempts to buy, steal, or make a spaceship in which to return to Earth from the planet Tschai, where he has been stranded (212 light years away). His goal is difficult because "On Tschai both virtue and vice were exaggerated." Its denizens lack chivalry and decency as they pursue personal advantage and are prey to volcanic joys and rages that make the people of earth seem sedate. "Evil?" A character asks Reith at one point. "On Tchai the word has no meaning. Events exist--or they do not exist." His goal is also difficult because the locals treat his supposed earthly origin as dangerous heresy. (Hence he becomes evasive: "I have learned that candor creates problems.")
Tschai is populated by four sentient alien species, the Chasch, Wankh, Dirdir, and Pnume, by their modified human servants (Chaschmen, Wankhmen, Dirdirmen, and Pnumekin), and by a "bewildering diversity of human types," ranging from pirates, cannibals, and marsh-folk, to nomadic mechanics, ultra-civilized Asiatics, and gray mongrels. As a local tells Reith, "men are as plastic as wax." Being a vivid world (possessed of pink and blue moons), Tschai also hosts all manner of exotic and often dangerous flora and fauna.
What in the first book is heading for a John Carter pastiche (with Adam Reith bringing independence to subjugated people and starting a romance with a Dejah Thoris type) morphs into something else by the second. Although the backbone of the novels is basically what Reith says more than once, "We are men," and in his peregrinations he tries to instill in the people of Tschai a little human get go and pride, far from seeking to liberate and unite all cultures on Tschai and settle there, he wants to return to earth, primarily to warn humanity there of the threat posed by the Dirdir (who millennia ago visited earth to get human slave stock to use on Tschai).
Planet of Adventure is full of Vance's ironic understatement ("The inhabitants are far from cordial"), dry humor ("A person who calls facts absurdities will often be surprised"), roguish conmen (everyone is out for the main chance), strategic manipulation of contractual language (when bargaining for the return of a friend be sure to stipulate that the person be returned alive), episodic plotting ("Events sometimes display a vitality of their own"), and vivid descriptions of exotic scenes ("For a long period the sea rose and fell in fretful recollection, but dawn found the Charnel Teeth standing like archaic monuments on a sea of brown glass"), cities ("plazas and piazzas of wind scoured concrete"), creatures ("It was over eight feet in height, in its soft black hat and black cloak, like a giant grasshopper in magisterial vestments"), and couture ("They wore long-billed black caps crowned by jawless human skulls, and the plume of hair rose jauntily just behind the skull").
It also features neat Vanceian philosophy:
"It occurs to me that the man in his religion are one and the same thing. The unknown exists. Each man projects on the blankness the shape of his own particular world-view. He endows his creation with his personal volitions and attitudes. The religious man stating his case is in essence explaining himself. When a fanatic is contradicted he feels a threat to his own existence; he reacts violently."
It is also full of cool Vanceian concepts, among them the sentient Emblems that shape the behavior of the steppe nomads who wear them; the cult who correctly believes that humanity derived from another world but who irrationally tries to contact the planet via telepathy; and "the multiple sexuality" of the Dirdir, whose males each have one of twelve varieties of sexual organs and whose females each have one of fourteen, most of which are incompatible with each other.
Although Vance imagines myriad exotic cultures with outre systems of fashion, alimentation, reproduction, recreation, religion, punishment, and music, he conveniently arranges things so that everyone speaks essentially the same language, glibly explaining the phenomenon as deriving from the intensely heterogeneous nature of the inhabitants of Tschai. (That said, he does interestingly play with language by giving English words outlandish spins, as with "boisterous" for the Pnumekin; giving different cultures different non-English words and translating them into English, as with the Yao word "awaile"; and creating an exotic and subtle, chime-based writing system for the Wankh.)
Vance is no feminist here. In the first book appear grotesque man-hating Priestesses of the Female Mystery, in the second book something shocking happens to the Dejah Thoris figure, in the third and fourth books Reith and Vance have completely erased her from their memories, in the fourth book Reith muses about a new companion, "She was female and inherently irrational, but her conduct seemed to exceed that elemental fact," and the main players in all four books are male.
Elijah Alexander reads the audiboook perfectly, with clear pronunciation, effective pacing and emphasis, and just enough emotion and amusement for Vance's dry irony. He does a solid Reith (earnest and gruff) and is great with Reith's mismatched complementary friends, Anacho the renegade Dirdirman (condescending and drawling) and Traz the renegade nomad (youthful and terse).
Although Reith can sure kill and is not above stealing at a pinch, he is the moral compass of the novel, acting in good faith, sticking by his friends, and avoiding needless killing in cold blood. His superiority to the venal and treacherous people he meets is one reason I find Planet of Adventure less impressive than Vance's Lyonesse Trilogy and Dying Earth books, populated as they are by anti-heroes. It's also less consistently and convincingly realized. So I recommend those other works before Planet of Adventure.
- By: Octavia E. Butler
- Narrated by: Dion Graham
- Length: 11 hrs and 12 mins
Doro is an entity who changes bodies like clothes, killing his hosts by reflexor design. He fears no one...until he meets Anyanwu. Anyanwu is a shapeshifter who can absorb bullets and heal with a kiss and savage anyone who threatens her. Together they weave a pattern of destiny unimaginable to mortals.
Fairy Tale... even if it's not
- By Annette on 12-23-09
A Fraught, Fantastic Love Story
Octavia Butler's Wild Seed (1980) is a compelling love story between seemingly the only two immortal beings in the world, one essentially but not exclusively male called Doro and one essentially but not exclusively female called Anyanwu. While Doro kills people to wear their bodies and sees them only as stock to breed, Anyanwu heals people and sees them as potential family members. She is also able to change her shape and to completely become different animals or people, down to the cellular level. All this enables Butler to powerfully explore gender and race, slavery and eugenics, community and control, power and independence, love and loss, humanity and identity.
As with her other novels like Kindred, Dawn, and Parable of the Sower, in this one Butler imagines believable, human characters and convincing and thematically relevant fantastic elements, puts different kinds of people together to see how they succeed (or fail) at making communities, and writes straightforward and potent prose. For those reasons, she makes us care about her characters so much that what happens to them is a matter of great interest and suspense.
Can Doro and Anyanwu ever build a relationship based on mutual understanding, respect, and love? They are different in every way but being immortal, and Doro's 3,700 years of life working on his project to create other 'gifted' immortals by putting his descendents with special abilities like telepathy or telekinesis in scattered settlements and breeding them with each other and with randomly found 'wild seed' like Anyanwu has been steadily rendering him less capable of human feelings like empathy. Anyanwu's 300 years of life in Africa free from other people's control has made it difficult for her to accept being Doro's breeding animal. This all makes their fraught relationship fascinating (often morbidly) to watch.
Butler sets the novel at first in Africa in the 17th century and then moves it to North America in the 18th and 19th centuries. This displacement of her story from the present into the historical past enriches the saga of Doro and Anyanwu with the American experience of slavery, as well as making it easier to conceive of pocket communities of super ability people living outside the notice of normal societies.
The ending feels somewhat abrupt, as though Butler was preparing for sequels, or rather, because she wrote this 'prequel' after writing the other novels in her Patterner series, as though she was fitting the book into already written sequels. Anyway, her unadorned, imaginative, and vivid writing becomes luminous in its power during scenes like when Anyanwu becomes a dolphin for the first time, or when one of her daughters has a particularly horrifying transition into her super ability, or when Doro remembers his own transition when he was 13 nearly 4,000 years ago.
Dion Grahame gives a perfect reading of the novel, convincingly speaking for whites and blacks, men and women, boys and girls, Americans and Africans, etc. He enhances the emotional power of Butler's novel.
People who like well-written and thematically serious stories about people with special abilities living among us should like this novel.
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- By: Neil Gaiman
- Narrated by: Neil Gaiman
- Length: 13 hrs and 48 mins
Richard Mayhew is a young man with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he stops to help a girl he finds bleeding on a London sidewalk. His small act of kindness propels him into a world he never dreamed existed. There are people who fall through the cracks, and Richard has become one of them. And he must learn to survive in this city of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels, if he is ever to return to the London that he knew.
- By Joseph on 10-29-09
A dangerous, magical world underfoot, out of sight
Richard Mayhew is a gentle, rumpled, passive securities trader living in London and getting engaged to his domineering (career- and man-shaping) girlfriend Jessica, when, on the way to a Very Important dinner engagement with her, he sees what appears to be a homeless girl lying wounded on the sidewalk and carries her back to his flat. Richard thereby fantastically upsets his normal life. It develops that the girl, named Door, is being hunted by foxy Mr. Croup and wolfish Mr. Vandemar, a pair of immortal assassins, that she originally hails from London Below, and that the side effect of helping her renders Richard an un-person in London Above. Finding himself unable to live in the 'real' London (where he no longer exists), Richard embarks on a dangerous quest in the 'magical' London Below (where he doesn't belong).
In addition to Door and the assassins, Richard will meet many colorful and eccentric characters beneath the streets of London, including the marquis de Carabas (a sardonic and suspicious thief who likes trading favors), Anaesthesia (a young Rat Speaker who acts as hands etc. for the rats Below), Hunter (a beautiful, burnt caramel-skinned Amazon who hunts challenging prey in the cities Below the cities of the world), Islington (a beautiful angel of indeterminate gender who recalls Atlantis with mixed feelings), and Old Bailey (a roof and bird man who fancies starling stew).
Gaiman writes a fair amount of London Above history and atmosphere, sewers, trains, origins, wall, streets, neighborhoods, museums, department stores, bridges, squares, and so on, as well as creating a lot of London Below equivalents. His fertile imagination is in fine fettle here, as he imagines an entire magical and repurposed underground world full of things and people that have fallen through the cracks of London Above: homeless, misfits, detritus, vermin, etc. usually invisible to or immediately forgotten by Abovegrounders. The world Below is oriented around Tube Stations whose Above names become fantastic concretized metaphors (like Earl's Court), around the Floating Market held each time in a different spot (like Harrods Department Store), and around fealty to various clans (like the Sewer Folk). Door's family house is a fine (unfortunately underused) conceit, being 'An associative house, every room of which is located somewhere else.' Gaiman never really explains just how all this works, other than saying things like, 'Time and space in London Below had their own agreement' (a lost Roman Legion is rumored to be wandering around down there somewhere), but it feels right.
Door (red hair, opal eyes, elfin face, layers of anachronistic clothes under a big leather jacket) and her family (father Portico, sister Ingress, etc.) are interesting: they can unlock any lock and make a door appear in any wall because everything is always wanting to be opened. So who killed them and why? Could it have something to do with Portico's goal to unify the fragmented people of London Below?
The marquis de Carabas is a splendid character, charismatic and dodgy and cocky: 'The world above or below was a place that wished to be deceived, so he had named himself from a lie in a fairytale, and created his self, his clothes, his manners, his carriage, as a grand joke.' And what does he keep in that fancy silver box he asks Old Bailey to keep for him?
Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are an entertaining pair of psychopathic supernatural killers, a comedy team liable to cut out your liver and feed it to you when they stop parsing language. So just who did hire them to pursue Door?
The story is exciting and funny. There are some surprising surprises. The climax is fitting and the resolution satisfying. Gaiman writes many of his imaginative extended similes, and if some of them misfire or seem a touch precious, most of them are fine, wittily constructing his fantasy world from sublime or absurd parts. For example, 'it [an assassin's laugh] sounded like a piece of blackboard being dragged over the nails of a wall of severed fingers.' And he also writes plenty of vivid descriptions, like this: 'The yellow-green fog became thicker: it tasted of ash, and soot, and the time of a thousand urban years. It clung to their lamps, muffling the light.'
The audiobook production uses some special features to gussy things up, like an echo effect when Gaiman reads italicized memories and some stylish and catchy music when (I think) a CD side is ending. Gaiman reads his novel with his usual panache and charm, pausing and emphasizing and dramatizing everything just right. His voices for the loquacious Mr. Croup and the laconic Mr. Vandemar are super. He does a neat shopping cart wheel 'squea.' My only criticism is that I wished he'd have sung 'Cheek to Cheek' instead of just reading some of the words.
The audiobook version ends with an entertaining and well-constructed short story Gaimain wrote in 2013 called 'How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,' featuring the posh coat of many pockets, the Mushroom, the Elephant, a love letter, a magnifying glass, Raven's Court, Shepherd's Bush, and a too perfect big brother.
Fans of Gaiman would enjoy this audiobook a great deal, while people who like well-written and well-read, imaginative, funny, and scary urban fantasy (especially featuring lore of London) should like it, too.
- A Novel
- By: Victor LaValle
- Narrated by: Victor LaValle
- Length: 14 hrs and 2 mins
When Apollo Kagwa's father disappeared, all he left his son were strange recurring dreams and a box of books stamped with the word improbabilia. Now Apollo is a father himself - and as he and his wife, Emma, are settling into their new lives as parents, exhaustion and anxiety start to take their toll. Apollo's old dreams return and Emma begins acting odd.
- By Diane on 08-07-17
“when fairytales were meant for adults”
“This fairytale begins in 1968 during a garbage strike.” The first sentence of Victor Lavelle’s The Changeling (2017) introduces his approach to the urban fantastic: mix the everyday minutiae of city life with the (cracked) magical. He writes many details of every day life in NYC, including subway trains, street names, parks, the arches of the Manhattan Bridge and Washington Square, the Buddhist temple in Chinatown, and the Fort Washington branch of the public library, as well as many other vivid details about things like making a Crockpot chicken dish, preparing a pot of tea, digging up a grave in a modern cemetery, selecting books at an estate sale, assembling a home computer system, watching TV shows like Home Improvement, posting baby photos on Facebook, and so on.
Behind that detailed surface of real NYC life, Lavelle writes a magical world of wishes, witches, trolls, and changelings. His fusion of the mundane and the magical extends to metaphors and similes, many of which either make the everyday fantastic, as when a tea kettle screams like a tiny dragon or a lighted bus at dawn “might as well be a chariot pulling the sun across the sky,” or make the fantastic everyday, as when a coughing troll sounds like a car engine that won’t turn over.
The novel depicts the painful growth of Apollo Kagwa (named for Rocky’s foe-friend) towards understanding the “glamour” that hides inconvenient parts of real life like the suffering of the weak and towards learning the truth behind his father’s apparent abandonment of his mother and him when he was an infant and behind changelings and parenting. His discovery of the magical reality lying beneath the everyday world gives Apollo “an overdose of the improbable” best dealt with by acceptance (to believe only the practical, rational, and the realistic is itself a kind of glamour) and love (between parent and child, sibling and sibling, friend and friend, husband and wife, etc.).
In that context, Lavelle interestingly explores the nature, meaning, and value of fairy tales, referring as a touchstone to Maurice Sendak’s Oustide Over There, doing plenty with the fact that fairy tales were originally for adults, explaining an interesting message of Rapunzel (it’s difficult to protect children from the outside world), and exposing the dishonesty of “they lived happily ever after” endings. (I wish Lavelle had done more or less with Outside Over There than he does, for he has Apollo find and re-read or remember multiple copies of it, but only deals with Sendak’s story up to Ida’s discovery that an ice changeling has replaced her baby sister.)
Lavelle’s book is also very much about race, including the trepidation with which black people (especially men) view white policemen and the suspicion with which they are viewed by shop owners and anonymous concerned citizens. There are some scenes of Walking, Doing Business, Catching a Taxi, and Talking in a Park While Black, all handled with pain, restraint, and humor (as when Apollo’s best friend Patrice is antsy about being out with him at night in a white neighborhood, not wanting to have survived a tour of duty in Iraq only to end up shot at home by a nervous policeman). Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird plays a key role in Lavelle’s novel, but Apollo knows that the sequel, in which “Atticus Finch is all racist and crabby,” reveals that “Ms. Lee knew the deal,” such that the later novel is “too honest” to be popular.
His book does a lot with gender, too, appropriately gendering its monsters and victims. At one point Apollo’s mother Lillian explains things from a female point of view: “I tried to be nice about saying no to Charles, but some men, you can’t be polite to them. If you’re polite they think it means you’re undecided. They hear your tone and ignore your words.” Like the race themes, Lavelle also handles the gender themes with humor, as in his riffs on “New Dads,” contemporary men who earnestly participate in bringing up their kids: “New Dads didn’t know how to do serious home repair, but they could pay for it.”
Even as it is a painful, horrifying, and moving novel, then, it is also a funny one. Lavelle has a winning dry humor, as when Apollo’s friend Patrice makes a big show of covering up his password entering device on his fancy computer system, and his wife Dana says that she knows all his passwords, because she checks his phone where he keeps them. Throughout, Lavelle writes witty lines, like “Maybe having a child was like being drunk. You couldn’t gauge when you went from being charming to being an asshole.”
He also writes a lot of life wisdom, like “Posting online is like leaving your front door open and telling any creature of the night it can enter,” and vivid descriptions, like “The sudden feeling of terror felt hot as sunlight against the back of his head.” He also capably reads his own novel. He doesn’t change his voice to become female or young or old characters, etc., but obviously knows exactly where to pause and when to intensify and reads clearly, and his voice and manner are appealing.
I do think Lavelle unconvincingly leaves a few key questions and motivations unanswered and unexplained in the end, writes some almost too brutal and graphic violence, and divides his story into too many short chapters (a common feature of contemporary fiction). And the second half of his novel, when we’re sure that the fantastic is operating, is less compelling (to me) than the first half, when we’re among disturbing ambiguities.
In its fusion of the everyday and the magical in a NYC setting, Lavelle’s novel reminds me of John Crowley’s Little, Big (1982), but with more horror and more consciousness about race and gender, and readers who like well-written urban fantasy with humor and horror and social relevance should like The Changeling.