Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Book Hungry
July 2007

The Music of Razors by Cameron Rogers
Del Rey, 2007, Softcover, 314 pp, $13.95

Just published in the USA, this book is an utterly terrifying picaresque of nightmarish surrealism.

(Rogers was apparently a stand-up comedian before turning to this kind of writing, which makes perfect sense to me as a causative relationship. But I digress.)

The first half of the book is concerned with the adventures of one Henry Lockrose, a young naif of a doctor in nineteenth-century Boston. Lured by the unintentionally seductive presence of the brilliant and beautiful Finella, he joins a secretive group of med-school friends as they dabble in the occult.

The ringleader of the gang, a strange Englishman named Dorian, has more knowledge of death than he should, and tragedy strikes the friends when he successfully calls back the spirit of a dead man with dark connections to Lockrose's past. As the surviving members of the group disband, Henry is forced into exile, dwelling obsessively on his ever-more-sinister plans for taking vengeance on Dorian. Gradually, an epic plot involving everything from fallen angels and the nature of the universe to the trials of cancer-victims reveals itself, and Henry degenerates into a monster.

Switching perspectives, we follow Dorian back to England and experience a subversion of his previously ominous character, meeting his endearing daughter Millicent and the magical companions he has created for her. Nimble, a heartbreakingly fragile clockwork ballerina, made to be a friend for one whose father is never home, and Tub, a charming little ogre who runs errands for Dorian on the Other Side. The innocent and tender romance between the two creations, as well as their concern for their mutual friend, is achingly sweet, a bright counterpoint to the darkness surrounding them.

The second half of the book makes a wild 180, dropping us into the present-day bleakness of a band of alienated high-schoolers: Walter has been comatose ever since he saw something scary in his closet as a child, and he's become a wandering spirit. Tied only to his 22-year-old body, being kept alive by a machine, he spends his days watching his family through invisible eyes and protecting his sister Hope from afar.

Suni, Hope's on-again-off-again boyfriend, on the other hand, does know about Walter's unusual condition -- in fact, he's been charged with looking out for Hope and protecting her from...

...well, it'd ruin all the fun if I told you everything.

Suffice to say that the scares in this book are real -- not because they're described in all their gory detail, but rather because the dread-factor has risen to unbearable levels around characters we care about:

Henry's transformation from a decent, well-meaning doctor into a horror of supernatural proportions is a tragic fall from innocent grace. Walter's loyalty to his sister, and Hope's fear of his physical body is even more heartrending. (Being a painter myself, I related especially to Suni, the misfit artist struggling for direction.) The book becomes a sort of extended metaphor for growing up and an exploration of the effects of endless loops of shame and memory-loss.

Indeed, the plot elements are so disparate and strange, ranging from apocryphal accounts of the war in heaven to hilariously bizarre surrealism in the spirit-world to the bleak wasteland of misguided contemporary youth that it's a miracle Rogers makes any of the plotlines work. The thing is, despite the oddness of the structure of the book, all the plotlines come together. Some of the basic ideas can obviously sound a little corny when they're boiled down as I've done here, but trust me, they become infinitely darker and more nuanced in the actual reading. It's an earnest pastiche of countless tropes and genre-conventions, to be sure, but Rogers weaves them together in such brilliantly creative ways that more than once I had to sit back and laugh in sheer delight at the fantasy.

Unfortunately, the book does start to dissolve a little towards the very end, resulting in a bit of a fizzle of a denouement. The fantasy elements come on so hard and fast at the climax that the sheer sense of the plot gets lost amid the jumble. Those lucky, beatific readers who are Much Smarter Than Me shouldn't have any trouble, of course.

Still, I can't bring myself to care. The ride itself was worth it many times over; Rogers has achieved something fine and terrible and strange and beautiful in this book.

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
Atria Books, 2006, Hardcover, 406 pp, $26.00

Alright, I know, this one's been on the shelves for a long while now. It's not even strictly fantasy, at least in the usual sense of the word, though it deals with such good old-fashioned melodramatic-fantasy-fodder as ghosts, evil-twins, and giants, and borrows fantasy tropes all over the place in the rhetoric of the story.

Still, it's fantasy-ish enough that I think anyone who is book-hungry for flights of make-believe will love it as much as I did.

This is because it's a story about stories. No, it's about the readers of stories and how those stories change them. (Heck, if you want to get all deconstructionist-y about it, it's a story about the nature of reality itself, as well as all sorts of fun postmodern piffle about unreliable narration and revisionist texts. None of this is why it's a great read, though.)

Vida Winter is the most beloved author in the world, writing books that the scholars can eagerly decode and the masses can eagerly get lost in. However, she wraps herself in a veil of secrecy so tight that even after hundreds of interviews, no one knows a thing about her.

Instead of telling the truth, you see, she tells all her interviewers stories, outlandish fantasies, each more unbelievable than the next. From any other writer, these twisted "autobiographical" tales would be masterworks in their own right; for Winter, they're mere throwaways, designed to entertain while still hiding her in a protective cocoon of anonymity.

Until she falls ill, that is. A final earnest young man comes to interview her, and she finds that he, if no one else, might deserve the true story of her life.

To this end, she enlists the aid of Margaret Lea, a young scholar who has recently taken to writing biographies of the virtually-unknown authors of the diaries and manuscripts found in her father's bookstore. Reading Lea's work, Winter senses a kinship with Lea, who seems to have an uncanny knack for describing the relationships between siblings.

This is because both Lea and Winter share a secret: they both have long-lost twins, and they both yearn for that connection which has been lost.

As Winter details more and more of her life, Lea fears that the fantastical elements are merely one more false trail, another game played by a senile aging writer. But as more and more details check out, more and more facts correspond with secondary sources, Lea is forced to admit that Winter is in earnest this time. It seems that despite the plots of her make-believe books, it is Winter's life itself that overshadows all of her other stories.

We gradually come to know and love an eccentric cast of characters, a whole family full of dark and enigmatic individuals with pasts and passions and secrets. This is the stuff of gothics, of melodrama, but it's told so convincingly that we're easily caught up in it, carried away by it.

And there's a timelessness about Setterfield's writing, which makes the surprise ending even more surprising; the rich plot is thick with details to the murder mystery that becomes the pivotal event of the novel. And yet, Setterfield gives us all the information we need to know; no tricks, no gimmicks, everything is real, you can go back to check all the clues and put it together for yourself.

This is not swords'n'sorcery fantasy -- Setterfield owes nothing to Tolkien; indeed, Jane Eyre is a far more important touchstone than any book containing an orc.

But this is fantasy of a truer sort, where real life is sometimes darker and stranger and more perception-altering than the tales we spin.

Shelter by Susan Palwick
Tom Doherty Associates, 2007, Softcover, 576 pp, $15.95

What happens when altruism becomes classified as a crime, when selflessness becomes an identifying mark of insanity? What happens when people can have their memories erased for putting themselves at risk for the sake of helping others in times of crisis?

You keep indoors, that's what.

In Shelter, Palwick has crafted an epic masterwork. She notes that the book took more than a decade to plan and write, and it's obvious in the sheer complexity and richness of thought present throughout the entire thing.

It's the late twenty-first century, and Artificial Intelligences have become commonplace. What's cutting-edge these days is translating human memory into digital analogues, translating thoughts into code. (It's worth noting that I, for one, am personally of the opinion that this is not even remotely possible; I promise if you bear with the story, it becomes far more about how humanity reacts to unusual circumstances than the "cool ideas" themselves.)

This new technology is coming hot on the heels of a deadly AIDS-like disease running rampant. Meredith, daughter of the first businessman to undergo "translation" into digital form, is just coming out of isolation after contracting the virus. She is, in fact, the first person not to die of the disease. The second, a girl named Roberta, is also coming out of quarantine, befriended on the sly by Preston, Meredith's father.

The story revolves around these two very different women, as they grow up and get on with their lives in the shadow of AIs, the virus ... and a particular house. A particular shelter.

We begin the book when, in the middle of an overwhelming storm, a homeless man takes cover in the house, and in his interactions with the resident AI begins to unknowingly unravel the dark secrets hidden within. The eerie suspense of this opening is marred only by the sheer amount of information given. A somewhat bewildering morass of memories and names is thrown at the reader -- they're meant to build suspense, but end up as merely a pile of unconnected threads -- but it ends up working in the end, and the necessity of beginning where Palwick does becomes apparent if you keep reading.

The book is much improved when she ditches the ominous flashbacks and dives into straight narrative, dividing the book into what are basically companion biographies of Merry and Roberta. When Merry joins a New-Age-y religious convent, the little tribe is drawn perfectly; Palwick is not content to divide people into simple classifications of good and evil, and there's an amazing section of the book where Merry deals intimately with the day-to-day process of making a community of utterly real individual individuals work smoothly as a whole. They become textured people; even though the mix of eccentrics is in some sense supposed to be somewhat iconic, even symbolic of ideological stances, they all remain thoroughly themselves, and no one is a patronizingly saintly stereotype.

The story has more than one center, but as Merry and Roberta grow up, all the different focuses come together and distill into surprisingly complementary concerns about politics and childrearing:

The construction and dismantling of many competing ideologies and shibboleths and how they form and interact with each other is a large part of the book, for instance. It's a twisted web of politics and biology, genetics and religious ethics. Seen from the outside, some of these characters are plain nutzo; from the inside, though, they become fascinating characters, they become us, and everything in the plot depends of their idiosyncratic interpretation of events. (There's also one hilarious scene I appreciated criticizing pseudo-intellectual art-snobs, which if I'm not careful I tend to easily degenerate into. My apologies go out to you, dear reader.)

Palwick is excruciatingly fairminded, even as she gleefully rubs salt into that particular, peculiar, perpetually-open wound where politics and religion divide people, or join them together, based simply on what they believe. Extremism clashes with extremism and every position is subverted -- we hear the propaganda of every side, and realize that the rhetoric is identical if you replace one group's favored devil with another's. She explores through the AI's quest for self-determination that uncomfortable region where people support the same policies based on almost inimical, irreconcilable, opposing beliefs -- that distinct moment when you want to shout at this lunatic to get off your side, because they're drowning the legitimate, rigorous arguments beneath their insanity, deforming everything with conspiracy-theories and hyperbole, making your position look ridiculous through the association.

But for all this political and religious maneuvering, the book still manages to remain tightly focused on wonderfully mundane human concerns -- love and sex and hunger and death, the things we worry about in our day-to-day lives when we're not thinking about the nature of the universe or the distribution of wealth and labor. All the big-idea cavorting only matters because of how they impact the complex web of relationships, friends, family, and lovers. Palwick becomes in these moments a sort of Anne Tyler for the sci-fi set, and the struggles Merry goes through with her son end up being the fulcrum on which all the other characters' stories turn.

It makes the horror more horrific, then, when the violence escalates for the dissenting viewpoints, as well as the mental instability of some of the characters. It's not exactly cheery reading, but it is epic and cathartic. The book becomes an exercise in exploring hopelessly ambiguous morality; like parenting, it's sometimes impossible to choose "the" right path out of so many terrible options, and yet the protagonists do choose, and in so choosing reveal their own character, and while they struggle mightily, this is certainly no nihilistic universe in which nothing matters.

There is some repetitiveness in a work this massive and sprawling, but it's easily forgivable. I also ended up confused as to whether or not the author believes herself in the argument that because humans are extremely complicated biological machines that AIs are necessarily equivalent. It doesn't really matter; the real pleasure and pain of this book comes from living with the people Palwick creates. It comes from having your heart broken as Merry's child learns the wrong rulesets as she tries to teach him, while all the time the background noise gets louder and louder and the rules contradict themselves and conflict with each other in ways that couldn't be foreseen by someone who already believes them, all reminiscent of the learning arc pattern of AIs, until the paranoia of mob-mentality builds to an epic, tragic climax.

Murder mystery? Legal thriller? Sci-fi extrapolation? Horror? Family drama?

Does it even matter what we call this kind of story? Palwick is a genre unto herself, and proves all the old classifications useless. Read this book.

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