Thursday, 19 October 2017

Book Review | Release by Patrick Ness


Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart. At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

***

Happy as I hope we all are, on the whole, I expect each and every one of us has lived through a few bad days too.

Now I don't mean those days when we have to deal with death or ill health or anything actively awful. I'm talking about those days that just suck a bunch; those days when nothing seems to go your way. Maybe it starts with a letter from the taxman and spirals up, up and away from there. Maybe the milk is spoiled so you can't have your morning coffee. Maybe traffic makes you late for work even though you left early. Whatever the particulars, these are the days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and damn your plans.

These days doesn't destroy us, because we're reasonably well adjusted human beings. Tomorrow's another day, we tell ourselves. It's not like the world is ending or anything. But it is in Patrick Ness' ninth novel. Like The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This before it, Release is a smart and sensitive standalone story that mixes the mundane with the magical in order to underscore the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary. It's a brief book about a bad day as bold and as beautiful as any finely-honed tome about the rise of Rome.

The bad day I've been banging on about is had herein by a young man called Adam Thorn. Adam is a pretty typical kid. He's never done drugs or caught an STD or seen a psychiatrist or displeased the police. He probably did decently at school, and he's definitely been holding down an alright job at a warehouse run by an Evil International Mega-Conglomerate in the several years since. He doesn't deserve to be miserable, but he is—in large part because of his family.

They fuck us up, our families! They don't mean to, but they do, and Adam's family is no exception to that regrettable rule. His father's a pastor at The House Upon the Rock, his mother is Big Brian Thorn's number one one fan, and his older brother Marty does God's Work as well. Naturally, none of these things should stop them from caring for Adam like a good family would, except that he's gay, and with this, they are not okay. "There was always a wound, it seemed, kept freshly opened by a family who also kept saying they loved him."

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book Review | Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill


Humanity is extinct. Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by One World Intelligences—vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle—a loner and scavenger, focused solely on survival—is one of the holdouts.

Critically damaged, Brittle has to hold it together long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs—but as a robot's CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface. For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular...

***

C. Robert Cargill's first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn't in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has "a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal" (p.332) as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no-one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:
The Sea of Rust [is] a two-hundred-mule stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It's a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It's all just a wasteland now. (p.3)
A wasteland it may be, but Brittle—with most of the map memorised and emergency caches stashed away all over the place—braves it on a damn near daily basis. You see, the Sea of Rust is a lawless land, by and large, and to survive, you have to scavenge. To wit, Cargill's book begins with Brittle hot on the heels of a failing service bot who's here for the same reason as she: to replace his own broken bits and bobs. But Brittle's both wiser and wittier than Jimmy. She convinces him to shut down voluntarily, supposedly so that she can assess the damage to his dying drives. Then she scraps him for parts: an emulator, a sensor package and a battery. "All in all, it's a great haul." (p.16)

And that's Sea of Rust to a T, readers: it's dark, but it does has a heart, because in truth, Brittle could have just killed Jimmy. From a distance. Quickly. Instead, she took his impending death personally, and gave him hope before prying out his precious processor.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review | Acadie by Dave Hutchinson


The Colony left Earth to find their utopia—a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

***

What do you do when you've burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you're Duke, an unusually lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:
"What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now." 
"You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?" 
She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. "Oh, I have something better than that." (p.26)
And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City's spaceport. "The words [...] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle's problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer's afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm." (pp.26-27) But looks, as Dave Hutchinson's twisty new novella takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.

Something Better Than That ultimately does just what Conjugación promised: it almost instantly spirits Duke off to the Colony, a distant solar system several million souls have made their home under the leadership—like it or lump it—of Isabel Potter, a previous professor of molecular biology at Princeton known by the Bureau as "Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West. [Duke] actually knew someone who had invoked her name to make her children go to bed. She was Legend." (pp.36-37)

Friday, 6 October 2017

Book Review | Sleeping Beauties by Stephen King & Owen King


All around the world, something is happening to women when they fall asleep; they become shrouded in a cocoon-like gauze. If awakened, if the gauze wrapping their bodies is disturbed, the women become feral and spectacularly violent...

In the small town of Dooling, West Virginia, the virus is spreading through a women's prison, affecting all the inmates except one. Soon, word spreads about the mysterious Evie, who seems able to sleep—and wake. Is she a medical anomaly or a demon to be slain?

The abandoned men, left to their increasingly primal devices, are fighting each other, while Dooling's Sheriff, Lila Norcross, is just fighting to stay awake.

And the sleeping women are about to open their eyes to a new world altogether...

***

On the back of the broadly brilliant Bill Hodges books, a succinct and suspenseful series of straight stories that only started to flag when their fantastical aspects filibustered the fiction, Sleeping Beauties sees Stephen King up to his old tricks again. It's a long, long novel that places a vast cast of characters at the mercy of a speculative premise: a sleeping sickness that knocks all the women of the world out for the count, leaving the men to fend for themselves.

Of course, the world is not now, nor has it ever been, King's business. Standing in for it in this particular story, as a microcosm of all that's right and wrong or spineless and strong, is a small town "splat in the middle of nowhere," (p.30) namely Dooling in West Virginia. There, tempers flare—and soon explosively so—when it dawns on a dizzying array of dudes that their wives and daughters and whatnot may be gone for good. It's Under the Dome part deux, in other words, except that this time, the Constant Writer has roped one of his sons in on the fun.

The author of an excellent short story collection, a gonzo graphic novel and an overwritten love letter to the silver screen, Owen King is clearly capable of greatness, but—rather like his father—falls short as often as not. I'd hoped to see him at his best here, what with the help of an old hand, however it's hard to see him at all, so consistent is the Kings' collaboration. But as tough as it is to tell where one King ends and the other begins, Sleeping Beauties is such a slog that it hardly matters.