Wolfhound Century

Wolfhound Century – Peter Higgins; Orbit, 2013

I am blessed to know some really cool people.  One of them is Little Red Reviewer – who loaned me an Advance Reading Copy of Wolfhound Century by Peter Higgins.  The novel was published in hardback in March of 2013.  I had my eye on it from the time I read snippets about it on some “upcoming novels” site.  I really enjoyed this book and I think I will probably eventually purchase a copy.  I am also given to understand that this is the opening book in a trilogy.  I think the next installment is due out in early 2014 (which seem really far away right now).

This book is not for every reader – this is not the sort of mass market paperback novel one picks up at the airport that contains one of the standard plotlines and uses stock characters.  Some people have compared this novel to China Miéville’s writings. I am not comfortable with that comparison, but I can see how some readers might feel there is a likeness.  Miéville is a unique and intelligent author, but I do not think that anything that is unique and intelligent therefore must take after him. The main element that sets this book apart is that the writing style is so unusual.

I really loved the writing style in this novel. I like the way that Higgins developed the setting of the novel; the setting is big, dark, real, and potent.  All of the descriptions used in the novel portray a great intensity.  Some readers have referred to this as “world-building,” again I differ because I feel world building is something less esoteric and more infrastructure related.  World building is making the map of the setting and making sure the physics is “sensible.”  What Higgins does in this novel, however, is poetry.  At no point did I feel that the writing was pretentious or bombastic, but each chapter was very well-written.  This is Higgins’ debut novel, though, and there were a few minor items where the writing is not perfect.  But the drop off is not steep. Overall, Higgins is an excellent writer.

The novel is set in an exceedingly interesting location, a sort of alternative Stalinist-Russia.  The country is surrounded by an immense forest and the terrain and the geography play a role in this novel.  Not merely in a way that maps out places, but in a way that actually infuses the plot itself and affects the characters significantly.   The pseudo-Stalinist Russia of the novel contains the dystopian elements of unending war, a police state, and a huge governmental edifice of buildings and departmental offices.  The weather is cold and rainy and dark.  And the landscape is full of bridges, streets, stonework, and iron.

The Vlast is the regime.  And in chapter 22, Higgins treats us to a scene reminiscent of 1984‘s “two minutes hate.”  In chapter 22, we are told that the main character:

….had looked up synonyms of Vlast once.  They filled almost half a column. Ascendancy.  Domination. Rule. Lordship. Mastery. Grasp. Rod. Control. Command. Power. Authority. Governance. Arm. Hand. Grip. Hold. Government. Sway. Reign. Dominance. Office. Nation.

But the novel is also fantasy. Here is a novel that is really difficult to jam into a genre. It’s fantasy – because it takes place in an alternative historical location, but also because it involves fantastic creatures like giants, golems, and “angels.”  I put quotes around angels because in this novel these creatures are nothing like any typical conception of angels.  Golems, giants, angels, magical properties, dryads – but all of these elements are written seamlessly into the novel so that it seems commonplace and normal and unremarkable that giants are puttering around a pseudo-St Petersburg.  The characters in the novel must deal with the Vlast as well as the supernatural.  This makes for a fascinating read.

Higgins is also, obviously, a very intelligent writer.  He has either done an extreme amount of research or he’s well-educated to begin with (perhaps both).  And it shows through this novel on every page.  There’s a great deal of conceptual apparatus here to play with – but it is all very subtle and seamless.  At no point does Higgins bash the reader over the head with any of these items.  And maybe things will be lost on some readers, or not resonate with others, but there are plenty of concepts that flesh out this novel so that it’s a full piece of literature and not simply a crime novel.  For example, the entire part of the storyline involving the artist Lakoba Petrov is representative of Higgins playing with aesthetics and politics and propaganda.  Awesome stuff.

Overall, this is definitely a five star novel.  It isn’t for children or the average reader – but it is a beautiful selection for those who like word craftsmanship, esoteric and dark settings, and intense storylines.  It really is not often one finds writing on this level – and it’s just super cool that the novel feels like Russia and has some fantasy elements.

5 stars

Embassytown

Embassytown

Embassytown by China Mieville; Del Rey

Embassytown was published in 2011.  It is the second book by China Miéville that I’ve read.  Honestly, I was not overly impressed with this novel.  There are some readers who adore everything that Miéville does, just because he does it.  I have expressed similar sentiments regarding the popularity of Grant Morrison and his work.  Miéville is very educated and he deserves all the praise in the world for writing intelligent books.  He takes very academic and intelligent concepts and creatively (and easily) develops novels around them.

In this particular novel, Miéville is working with philosophy of language.  I’ve done my share of PoL, and I have never been wow-ed by it.  Since, 2002, perhaps, it’s become all the rage in philosophy departments, though. I suppose it’s the end result of analytic philosophy and the ostracizing of traditional metaphysics. Derrida, Ricouer, Gadamer, N. Salmon, Donnellan, Kripke – all of these PoL heavyweights would probably be very interested in Miéville’s novel.  However, I am not an analytic philosopher and, generally, find PoL tedious and something that lives in its own little bubble. It’s obvious that Miéville pulls from Ricouer’s works (for example: The Rule of Metaphor: Multi-disciplinary Studies of the Creation of Meaning of Language).  The main character herself plays a massive role as the narrator in this work, which can be analyzed in terms of literary narrative tone, but also in terms of the hermeneutics of the narrator.

Miéville has great skill in utilizing concepts usually banished to classrooms by instantiating them into a fictional world.  And not just any world – he develops worlds that are foreign, fantastical, and futuristic.  It takes a great deal of effort to succeed in doing what Miéville does.  Indeed, his books would be enjoyed by philosophers, but this novel also takes some of the concepts that those very philosophers work with and then forces the non-philosopher reader to learn, understand, and cope with these concepts, too.  That’s no small task.  On the other hand, Miéville is probably lost on a lot of the reading public – who do not have the aptitude for or interest in PoL concepts, etc.

Sometimes I feel like Miéville is showing off how smart he is.  I do not feel this way all the time, but sometimes. And at those times, I wonder who, exactly, he would be showing off to? The philosophers won’t really be impressed and the work will be lost on those without any training/aptitude.  And frankly, this novel qua novel is not very good.  The characters are all very bland and flat.  In fact, many of them seem downright toxic in their inability to affect the reader.  The plot is basic and not at all original in science fiction.  But my biggest issue was that most of the chapters repeat and repeat and repeat the same information – stalling out the storyline.  Some chapters, really, just repeat the chapter before or after.  I feel that towards the end of the novel, Miéville kept telling us over and over about Ambassadors committing suicide – but he tells us this so many times, that I feel there were literally billions of Ambassadors for that many suicides to have to be mentioned.

And here’s an example of a great idea – the “twins” (used loosely) or “doppels” of people created to be “Ambassadors” to the Hosts (read: non-humans) is a concept that is really science fiction/psychology/philosophy.  There’s so much food for thought (Self, schizophrenia, telepathy, brain function, etc.) that could be developed. But the Ambassadors are all very uppity, weird, and impersonal that it ruins some of the awesome idea that Miéville has.  Even Bren or Vin (the two most developed Ambassador-types) are still just distant characters.

I feel that the ideas and concepts that Miéville uses in this novel are awesome and intelligent and well worth giving five stars.  However, the novel itself is really not more than two stars.  The storyline could be told in about 200-fewer pages.  And the characters were really unimportant; the idea of the characters far more important.  But, this is not a thesis on PoL.  This is a novel.  There’s a difference [sic] and that difference is not simply a matter of perspective, semantics, and hermeneutics.  When Miéville is able to write five-star novels with five-star concepts/ideas – he’s going to write books that will never be equaled. Until then, Embassytown is a tough read, but better than many books out there.

3 stars

Action Comics #7

Action Comics 7

Action Comics #7; DC

Grant Morrison.

I read Action Comics #7 twice and decided to give the issue 4 stars – in spite of it having been written by Grant Morrison. Or, maybe, because of being written by Grant Morrison. I just cannot tell.

Okay, so first of all, it’s difficult to believe we are already on the seventh issue of The New 52!  The Batman title has, more or less, been seen as the greatest success for DC, with most readers finding it to be the best of the whole lot. Sure, some people like what has been going on with Swamp Thing and Wonder Woman – but those titles will never have the powerhouse appeal that Batman does.  Now, where does Action Comics fit in with all of these?  It has always been the flagship Superman title.  DC handed this title over to Grant Morrison, who is probably one of the most talked about creators in comics.  It seems that readers either love or hate Morrison – and usually flip their opinion with every issue they read.  Most of the time, it seems Morrison is, at least, frustrating.

I’ve commented on Morrison several times in this blog. He is known for cryptic details, non-linear storytelling, and daring unorthodox character developments. So, is Morrison really a good writer or does he just know how to get talked about? Is he a good writer or do people just enjoy the “difference”? I kind of wish Derrida were around to comment on Morrison.  And since I’m imagining a little forum of writers, I’d like to add China Miéville to the mix. This would be a good round-table group.

I read Action Comics #5 and shrugged. So did Zarathustra. I read Action Comics #6 and hated it. In fact, I purposely left it off of my comic subscription list at my local comic book store. I was ready to be done with Morrison. I had high-hopes at issue #2, but I hated #6 so much that I could not stand the idea of reading any more Morrison nonsense. I was prepared to write an “enough-is-enough” rant about the madness and drivel that Morrison gets away with publishing.

And then I read #7 and, though it had it’s frustrating-Morrison-moments, I really liked it. After #6, I brought a lot of negative with me to #7, so for me to say that I liked #7 rather pains me. Okay, it contained things that I like about Superman comics, viz. the Bottle City of Kandor and Brainiac.  Maybe I just have too much love for Lilliput or something.  I love the concept of a bottle city.  And then there is Brainiac.  Of course I love Brainiac. I love Brainiac the villain and “Brainiac” 5 of the Legion of Super-heroes. So…. there’s just a lot here that I love on principle.

This issue does have the typical Morrison-style in media res stuff.  However, it’s not as “bad” as in other issues. Somehow, I was able to follow along fairly-well and be drawn into the story. (Who knows if Morrison will continue this storyline anytime soon?) There’s Superman being confident and Lois being abrasive and Lex being two-steps ahead of everyone else.  There’s armor from Krypton and Superman is wearing an airtank when he gets to space (the eternal:  how does he breathe in space aporia).  But Brainiac is updated a bit:  collector of worlds, internet, computo, et al. This is good stuff:  perfect for The New 52.  This is what should be going on in the DC titles.  The artwork is solid (I cannot imagine what drawing for/with Grant Morrison would be like).

….Grant Morrison….. What to do with this guy? I guess I’m all in for a few more issues of Action Comics.

4 stars

The City & The City

The City & The City
The City & The City

The City & The City (2009) is the first book that I have read by China Miéville.  I admit that his Perdido Street Station (2000) has been on my want list for several years, but I have never been able to pick up the book on sale anywhere. I had no idea what to expect, except that it would be something very different.

The City & The City has been given many awards:

  • Locus Award for Best Fantasy Novel
  • Arthur C. Clarke Award
  • World Fantasy Award
  • tied for the 2010 Hugo Award for Best Novel
  • nominated for a Nebula Award and John W. Campbell Memorial Award for Best Science Fiction Novel

The basic plot of the novel is a police procedural told in the voice of Inspector Tyador Borlú.  Borlú, of the Extreme Crime Squad in the European city-state of Besźel, investigates the murder of Mahalia Geary, a foreign student found dead with her face disfigured in a Besźel street. He soon learns that Geary had been involved in the political and cultural turmoil involving Besźel and its twin city of Ul Qoma. His investigations start in his home city of Besźel, lead him to Ul Qoma to assist the Ul Qoman police in their work, and eventually result in an examination of the legend of Orciny, a rumoured third city existing in the spaces between Besźel and Ul Qoma.

As far as the police procedural story, it’s pretty average fare. This is no Harry Bosch or Adam Dalgliesh masterpiece.  However, what should be emphasized is that it is much more than simply following a detective around.  Part of the reason that Miéville is telling us a police procedural story is because policemen have a unique and significant relationship and existence withing their city.  And, as many commentators on Miéville have said before…. Miéville is always telling us about the city.  Inspector Borlú is not a gritty, hard-boiled detective.  He’s not the typical “down-on-his-luck,” disobedient, old-enough-to-retire cop.  In fact, the story, while told from Borlú’s perspective, is not really about him at all. If anything, the character development of Borlú is somewhat downplayed in this novel.

It’s beyond my ability to explain the setting/location of the novel better than it has already been done. This is Martin Lewis‘ description:

Besźel permeates Ul Qoma and vice versa:  to us, to the outsider, they are, in fact, a single city.  Not so to their inhabitants.  The process of instinctively recognizing and ignoring the other city is so internalized by the citizenry that it acts as an almost physical barrier.  The city and the city are sometimes densely crosshatched, sometimes physically as well as psychically separated, but the other city is always there and always foreign.

And this is Thomas M. Wagner‘s description:

Besz and Ul Qoman citizens must be the most neurotic people alive. By law, they must choose to ignore — to “unsee” — those parts of each other’s cities that occasionally obtrude on their own. One can be “in” Besźel or Ul Qoma, but whichever of the two you inhabit, you must be wary of those “crosshatched” areas of the city where bits of the other city are more visible than otherwise. A person in Besźel can be walking the sidewalk right next to someone in Ul Qoma. They are side by side, but a whole city, and a whole reality away. Violations of this bizarre boundary are considered Breach, and harshly punished by a mysterious Orwellian law enforcement body who somehow exist independently and above both cities, who possess frighteningly omniscient surveillance powers and apparently limitless punitive ones.

I do not know how helpful either description is, but I think both are intriguing and probably are enough to make most readers curious about Miéville’s book. Most readers who have had their interest piqued by these ideas probably want to know what sort of genre this novel can be called. Miéville seems to designate it as “weird fiction.”  Some bookstores shelve it in the Science Fiction/Urban Fantasy section.  Others just consider it general fiction.  The efforts of pigeon-holing books so fiercely have caused readership to expect novels that are clearly in one genre or another – so that they can also expect what sort of story they will be reading.  Naturally, this can lead to readership being unsurprised by storylines and reading what is really the same story over and over again, except in a vaguely different book cover.  This novel is fiction. It is set in a city that is two cities at once.  The cities are not real, however, the commonly known earth is accepted:  there is America, Canada, France, Turkey, etc.  The cities are probably most like Ruritania. Little references are made to things like The Terminator, iPods, and Windows OS.

Miéville has a distinctive way of writing. I consider it to be similar to writing as how one thinks – sometimes in phrases, sometimes interrupting.  I do not mean to say that the writing is discordant, but it is somewhat jarring upon first meeting it.  Miéville is also a very smooth writer – the reader is brought along through the story without feeling shoved, jolted, bludgeoned, or otherwise abused.  I almost want to praise this novel for all the things that it is not. One of the things it does not have is extraneous, elongated purple-prose that burdens readers of “literary fiction.”    The novel also does not over-explain every detail.  Those readers who love the detailed minutiae of high-tech science fiction or finely examined legal systems might be disappointed.

I love the “setting” of the novel (or, perhaps, the concept of the dual-cities). Throughout the novel, as I read, I was constantly trying to imagine the cities.  Part of the uniqueness of each city is cultural; for example, colors, clothing styles, coffee-drinks, etc. We are not told what the specific details are, but that they are. Also, the way people drive, walk, and interact has subtle physical and psychological aspects that demarcate one citizen from another. I found this part really fascinating. Sometimes, I admit, the lack of details was a little frustrating. I understand having the courage to let the reader fill in the blanks, but a little help here and again would probably have made the story just solid enough. Of course, the novel won most of the big awards, so apparently, the lack of details did not hinder the book’s fame.

The book is divided into three main parts:  Besźel, Ul Qoma, and Breach.  The first section (Besźel) starts off a bit difficult because the reader has not quite gotten into the theme and setting. My advice is simply: keep reading!  The second part (Ul Qoma) is really the section where the action of the plot takes off. This is good stuff – solid writing, good story.  The third section (Breach) is my least favorite section. The first several chapters of this part are cumbersome and a little bit more challenging to get through. Obviously, “Breach” is supposed to be mysterious and shadowy, but sometimes I felt that Miéville let the story get away from him here or there.  Chapters 23-25 are a little bit less good than the rest of the book.

As far as the characters – they are not all that interesting or distinct. There isn’t a lot of character development. I am okay with that – most novels seem to focus only on character personalities and it was nice to read a novel that focuses on setting.  One thing about the main character that did seem a bit “too easy” was that Tyador Borlú does not seem to be an amazing detective, but he constantly manages to get people to do what he wants. Not in an exploitative or ambitious way, but rather that they all seem to just do what he says, capitulating without a whole lot of argument.

This book is quite good. It could have been magnificent and excellent. Instead it is quite good. Certainly, it will not appeal to all reader’s tastes, but those it does appeal to, will rank it highly.

4 stars

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