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Review: Lovecraft Country

Lovecraft Country 2

“I do love them,” George agreed.  “But stories are like people, Atticus.  Loving them doesn’t make them perfect.  You try to cherish their virtues and overlook their flaws.  The flaws are still there, though.”

“But you don’t get mad.  Not like Pop does.”

“No, that’s true, I don’t get mad.  Not at stories.  They do disappoint me sometimes.”  He looked at the shelves.  “Sometimes, they stab me in the heart.”

H.P Lovecraft was one of the masters of twentieth-century horror.

He was also, to be blunt, a huge fucking racist.

We sometimes tend to let the authors of past decades off the hook  with pat excuses like, “Well, he was just a product of his time,”  but Lovecraft’s racism goes way beyond that.  It was extreme even for America in the 1920’s, and it is so bound up in every aspect of his writing it is impossible to ignore.  His stories are loaded with sinister foreigners and bestial “half breeds,” and many of the fears and anxieties he explores are rooted in an intense xenophobia and obsession with racial purity.  That’s why just last year the World Fantasy Awards changed their trophy from a bust of Lovecraft.  For anyone–like me–who reads and enjoys Lovecraft, this fundamental racism is a serious issue.

That’s why Lovecraft Country, the new novel by Matt Ruff, feels so fresh and important.  It takes a hard look at the racism of Lovecraft’s stories, but nevertheless finds something worthwhile in them.  Then it uses those same stories, themes, and ideas as a way of talking about race and racism in the United States.

Lovecraft Country 3

The story centers on two black families living in Chicago in 1954.  When Atticus Turner’s father disappears, his search takes him to a mysterious town controlled a very Lovecraftian cult, “the Adamite Order of the Ancient Dawn.”  From here, the story expands to explore how the cult touches the lives of Atticus’ friends and family, and includes ghosts, haunted houses, interdimensional travel, magic potions, and possessed dolls.  Each chapter focuses on a separate character, and they range from frightening to funny, adventurous to thought-provoking.

Using Lovecraft’s ideas and motifs to talk about black lives under Jim Crow seems like a strange choice.  However, in Ruff’s hands this combination works surprisingly well.    After all, the central theme of Lovecraft’s writing is “cosmic horror”:  the idea that we are trapped in a vast unfeeling universe, the victim of forces we cannot control or even understand.  This is not so different from the daily life of many African Americans in the 1950’s.  In fact, when a cult leader warns Atticus and his friends that they are doomed to be hounded and persecuted, to never know moment’s peace or safety, they simply laugh at him.  Atticus responds, “What is it you’re trying to scare me with?  You think I don’t know what country I live in?  I know.  We all do.  We always have.  You’re the one who doesn’t understand.”

Atticus’ meaning is clear:  they are already living in Lovecraft Country.  America is Lovecraft Country.  Racism, segregation, and hate turn life into a horror story, and the only way to understand it is through the language of horror.  This is what makes Lovecraft Country so special:  it revitalizes Lovecraftian horror by making it relevant, using supernatural evil as a way of talking about more prosaic everyday evils.  In doing so, it allows us to use Lovecraft’s deeply racist stories as tools for thinking critically about race.

Rating:  5 out of 5 stars

Review: A Darker Shade of Magic

A Darker Shade final for Irene

When V.E. Schwab’s A Darker Shade of Magic opens, Kell is on his way to deliver a message to King George III.  The world he moves through is recognizable as the city of London in the early 1800s—until he uses magic to open a door to an entirely different London, one where magic is real and the lifeblood of the city.  And there are other Londons, too—one in a constant state of war and chaos, and one where magic has destroyed everything.  Kell acts as a messenger (and sometimes smuggler) between these different worlds.  But when he finds himself wrapped up in an evil conspiracy, he and his new friend Lilah Bard, a thief from our world, must journey across all the worlds to set things right.

I am always a sucker for good world-building, and in A Darker Shade of Magic, Schwab convincingly creates not one, but three different worlds.  My favorite is “Red London,” a city where magic runs through every part of life, and whose beauty and pageantry contrasts sharply with our own “Grey London.”  Much more frightening is “White London,” a violent world of predators, the most dangerous its pale twin rulers.  All three cities are vibrant and fully realized, full of interesting characters and locales.

The book starts a bit slowly as Schwab introduces us to the characters, the worlds, and the ways they use magic to travel between them; but once the plot kicks into high gear, it never lets up.  Kell and Lilah dash from world to world, facing near escapes, deadly battles, and dark magic.  The pace is relentless and exciting, and I often found myself flipping pages, unable to wait to see what happens next.

A Darker Shade of Magic 2

When travelling between worlds, always bring your badass magical coat.

All this adventure would be meaningless if we didn’t care about the characters; fortunately both Kell and Lilah are strong characters in their own right, and even stronger together.  Kell was adopted by the royal family of Red London, but he feels more like a hostage than a member of the family.  Lilah has had to struggle for everything in her life.  Privileged Kell vs. Poor Lilah suggests the cliché “Prince and the Pauper” relationship we have seen so many times before, but Schwab challenges and complicates this idea at every turn:  Kell embraces the power and responsibility of his position despite its restrictions, and Lilah doesn’t want to be rich—she wants nothing more than to be a pirate captain.  It helps that both characters are equally capable in their own ways, and frequently rescuing one another.

I was also impressed by the way the book treats magic.  All too often in fantasy novels, magic is either a deus ex machina that can do anything the plot requires, or bogged down in intricate rules that make it seem more like algebra than alchemy.  While the magic in A Darker Shade of Magic is capable of great wonders, it always comes with a price—whether this price is taken from the characters’ bodies, their minds, or even their souls.  Whether they choose to pay this price, and what they stand to lose, makes magic constantly fascinating.

Many recent YA books and movies are more concerned with setting up a sequel or starting a franchise than telling a complete story; and indeed, a sequel to A Darker Shade of Magic, called A Gathering of Shadows, was just released last month.  Knowing this, I was pleasantly surprised by how satisfying the book’s ending was.  The major plot was resolved, and most loose ends were tied up.  I’m excited to read more not because of an ending teaser or plot twist, but because these are great characters living in a fascinating world, and I want to hear more about their further adventures. I wish more books could end so well!

Rating:  4 out of 5 stars

Review: This Census-Taker

This Census-Taker

“Kafkaesque,” despite being a great word for Scrabble, is not a word I would use to describe very many books.  It expresses something ambiguous but unsettling, something dark and perplexing and vaguely ominous.  It is also the perfect descriptor for China Miéville’s most recent novella, This Census-Taker.

I don’t want to reveal too much of the plot, because much of the pleasure of the book lies in figuring out exactly what has happened, what is happening, and why.  But I can say this:  the story begins with a young boy running down a mountain to the city below, screaming, having witnessed something terrible.  What follows is a sort of existential horror story, about what happens to the boy and how he copes with the nightmarish situation in which he finds himself.

One of the most interesting aspects of This Census-Taker is its setting.  This setting is extremely small in scope, focusing on the unnamed boy’s house on the mountain and the small village below it.  But every now and again, Miéville lets slip a tantalizing glimpse of the world outside this village, and the history behind it.  Similarly, small details slowly reveal that the world this boy inhabits is very different from our own.

There are two main methods of worldbuilding in fantasy works like this.  One method, practiced by authors like J.R.R. Tolkien and George R.R. Martin, is explication.  Every location, every character, every word has a lengthy backstory, and readers with enough time and patience can connect it all.  The other method, seen in works like this and many of Neil Gaiman’s stories, is implication.  The world is not fully fleshed out, but only hinted at through sly suggestions and veiled references.  It is up to the reader to fill in the gaps with her own imagination.  This power to evoke a lot with a little is one of This Census-Taker’s greatest strengths.

Mieville

China Miéville always looks like he wants to beat you up.

China Miéville is a stylistic chameleon.  In his baroque, sprawling New Crobuzon novels he adopts a similarly flowery and excessive writing style; in the noir-ish The City and The City, he takes up a more straightforward and almost hard-boiled prose.  In This Census-Taker, he slips into the voice of someone clearly not comfortable with language, both as a traumatized boy and as an adult writing about his youth in a language not his own.  The narrator slips between the first and third person at key moments, sometimes even referring to himself as “you.”  Names and proper nouns are in scarce supply, and outside of a few friends people are called by their functions—mother, father, the hunter, and of course the census-taker.  This ambiguity and even confusion at the level of language contributes to the unsettling and off-kilter tone of the book:  nothing feels safe, nothing feels known.

Overall, this was not one of my favorite books by China Miéville.  Not much happens—this is a book that focuses in on a single event and its repercussions instead of following a clear narrative—and despite some intriguing hints, the world feels a bit sparse compared to the overflowing Perdido Street Station.  However, I do think it is a successful book.  From the first page to the last, it gave me a profound sense of unease and discomfort, of entering an unsettling world full of ominous and unknowable authorities.  If that isn’t Kafkaesque, I don’t know what is.

.Rating:  3 out of 5 stars

Review: Armada

Armada

For any gamer, the premise of Ernest Cline’s Armada is pure wish fulfillment:  geeky teen Zack Lightman discovers that his favorite video game is actually a training simulation for a real life war against alien invaders.  Suddenly, his leet skillz make him the most important person on Earth, and quite possibly the savior of humankind.  But as he rockets from high school fights to airborne battles, Zack begins to suspect that not everything is as it seems…

If the premise sounds familiar, it should:  it’s pretty much the exact plot of the 1984 film The Last Starfighter.  Just like Cline’s first novel, Ready Player OneArmada wears its influences on its sleeve (sometimes literally–Zach has a jacket covered with patches from classic video games).  It’s full of quotes, references, and homages to films, books, and video games like The Last Starfighter, Ender’s Game, and Iron Eagle–not to mention Star Trek and Star Wars.  At one point, Zack’s two best friends have a lengthy argument over which fictional weapon was the best, Thor’s Mjolnir or Frodo’s Sting (a fruitless discussion–the correct answer is obviously Axe Cop’s axe).

This kind of nerdy banter is one of the best things about Armada.  For someone who likes video games, comics, and cheesy sci-fi movies, reading a book by Cline is like hanging out with a smart, funny friend.  Some readers called Ready Player One “nostalgia porn,” but for me there’s a huge difference between Armada and cynical cash-grabs like Pixels:  Cline genuinely seems to love this stuff, and love talking about it.  In fact, one of the most fun and exciting moments in the book is just a play-by-play description of Zack playing his favorite video game.

Also, the dust jacket doubles as a blueprint for one of the spaceships. How cool is that?

Also, the dust jacket doubles as a blueprint for one of the spaceships. How cool is that?

Unfortunately this delight in all things geeky, which made Ready Player One such a joy, feels a little out of place in Armada.  This is a book with a literal doomsday clock, a rapidly declining countdown until the aliens arrive and start tearing Earth apart.  It feels a little out of place when characters take a break to make a Yoda joke or talk about their characters in Dungeons and Dragons.  The tone swings wildly between grim war story, nerdy diatribe, and family melodrama.  It’s as if Rorschach took a break in the middle of Watchmen to discuss what an underrated show Mork and Mindy was.

The ending of the book also feels rushed and incomplete.  There’s a revelation about the aliens I won’t reveal here, but it’s foreshadowed so early and so frequently that when it finally arrives it feels a bit anticlimactic.  What promises to be an epic final battle is compressed into a few short pages, and feels more like we’ve been given an outline of the battle than actually experienced it firsthand.  It’s odd that this encounter falls so flat, compared to the exciting and downright joyful depictions of Zack’s in-game missions early in the book.  The last two chapters feel like they could have been an entirely separate book, a condition I like to call The World’s End Syndrome.

Despite all this, I enjoyed Armada.  I think Ready Player One is a better book–it has fewer weaknesses, and they are easier to ignore.  But for anyone who has ever cranked up the stereo, fired up some video games, and felt like a hero, Armada is a welcome escape.  If nothing else, it would make a terrific movie.  I can even think of a title…

The moral of the story is, Hollywood really needs to remake this movie!

The moral of the story is, Hollywood really needs to remake this movie!

Rating:  3 out of 5 stars