Friday, May 10, 2013

Dead Ever After

Author: Charlaine Harris
Genre: Mystery/Urban fantasy
Original Pub. Date: 2013

Spoiler Alert. Spoiler Alert. This is not a test of the Emergency Spoiler Alert System.

Through the miracle efficiency of Amazon's fulfillment services, I got this book in the mail the day before it was officially released, and yet I missed every book reviewer's happiest moment: panning a book before most readers even have it in their hot little hands.

That just goes to show you how utterly unexcited I was by the thirteenth and final installment in Charlaine Harris's Southern Vampire Mysteries series. The biggest moment for me was opening the box a day early; it was all downhill from there.

Anyone wanting a summary of the previous books can refer to last year's review of book twelve, Deadlocked. Back? Good, because I hardly need to add anything to that review to cover the events of Dead Ever After. My complaints still stand, my predictions were accurate, and I'm trying not to regret the time I invested in this series over the last few years.

Even if I devoted another few years to the effort, I'm not sure I could wrap my head around what in God's name Harris was thinking. She's said somewhere -- I'm too lazy to find a link -- that this is the series ending she had in mind from the beginning. Okay, I get having a plan, because otherwise you end up with Lost*, but there's a reason so many authors bemoan their characters doing things they didn't intend. It sounds silly, but it's actually true: once you've developed a character well, he takes on a life of his own, and if you're writing a story with any kind of skill you'll know when you're trying to force a character into doing something that just doesn't make sense for that person. At that point, you either have to force it -- which ruins characters, kills puppies, and leaves the reader boggling in confusion and disgust -- or you have to revise your original plan.

Charlaine Harris chose to force it with this book, and that was a big, big mistake. If her plan from the beginning was to have Sookie end up with her dull friend Sam, why did Harris give so much page-time to much more charismatic love interests? Why bother with thirteen books? There was never any sexual chemistry between Sookie and Sam, and even their friendship -- yes, this book is up to the hilt in ye olde "I never realized I was in love with my best friend" trope** -- didn't seem all that exciting.

Since there weren't really any reasons for Sookie to go for Sam, the only way to get to this pointless, non sequitur ending was to give her reasons not to go for anyone else. To achieve this, Harris took the remains of the Eric character, whom she assassinated in the previous two books, and jumped on them a few times prior to setting them on fire.

In a plot contrivance that seems to tacitly acknowledge what nearly every reader could have told her, Harris uses a lame, deus ex machina "magic made us more attracted to each other" justification based on the fact that Sookie saved Sam's life with a fairy MacGuffin at the end of the last book. It, like, connected them, or something. 'Kay. There was no reason for Sookie and Sam to fall in love, so Harris was compelled to invent one that doesn't make very much sense.

Let's break this down. Harris either made a bad plan and stuck with it out of sheer cussedness (knowing full well that at least 90% of her readers wanted Sookie and Eric to have a happily ever after), or she made a good plan and then executed it with stunning incompetence.

Either way, this book is a pathetic and disappointing ending to what was, up until book ten or so, a solidly re-readable series. I can't even enjoy the earlier books now, so off they go to Goodwill with Dead Ever After. Two stars.

* And I don't care what the show's final resolution was, the only thing that could explain the entire "plot" is time-traveling body-snatcher government agent shapeshifting polar bears from outer space -- as the writers.

** Only, sadly, here it's more of an anemic, fizzling "I never realized I was kind of sort of okay with the idea of dating my best friend, since he's the only romantic option left in my small town."

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Rifter

Author: Ginn Hale
Genre: Fantasy/Gay
Original Pub. Date: 2011

It's rare that anything surprises me in a book. Even the foulest depths of almost incomprehensible human depravity, e.g. Nights in Rodanthe, leave me shrugging in utter belief. Now and again, though, an author pulls it off, and this week that author is Ginn Hale, who did something with her serialized novel The Rifter* that I haven't seen in a while: she had an original goddamn idea. Strike that. She had several, and I'm still reeling and popping nitroglycerin pills.

I was considering writing this review as a Literary Showdown versus my last victim (The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms), but that seemed a little unfair; The Rifter is so much better than the other that it would be like putting a sedated long-eared bunny rabbit in the ring with Mike Tyson. There are some thematic similarities that make the comparison worthwhile, though.

Both The Hundred Thousand Political Action Messages and The Rifter use the same mythological underpinnings: the physical creation of the world out of the actual substance of gods. In the former, the gods accomplish this by having sex with their siblings in various grotesque ways; in The Rifter, it's more of a classic "the god lay down and his flesh became the world" sort of scenario.** (Three guesses which I find more appealing.) It's not entirely clear whether our world (present-day Earth) and the world in which The Rifter takes place are made from the same god-stuff, but they are definitely connected by a sort of dimensional gate (my lame term, not Hale's). The gate opens using a key made from a bone of the last holy Rifter, a religious figure in the other world who's basically a sentient amputated limb of the living flesh of the world-god.

The religious order of this other world periodically designates a new Rifter, who is then pulled from our world and used as a threat to hold over everyone else to maintain the religion's power; the Rifter is capable of completely destroying the world, and in fact that is his primary function as the destructive incarnation of the god. Once the Rifter does his (or sometimes her) thing, he dies and one of his bones becomes the next powerful relic. The really fun part is that the destruction of part of the world and the destruction of the Rifter aren't cause and effect the way you'd think. The Rifter is physically a limb of the living world, and exploding a person's foot, to translate the idea, would cause shock, blood loss, gangrene, and a whole lot of other problems in addition to the trauma.

The novel focuses on John, the designated Rifter-in-reserve. When the story opens in our world, he's a normal guy with a weird tattooed roommate who's actually the Kahlil, an other-world sorcerer-monk assigned to keep an eye on him and bring him home to rip the world apart when/if necessary, and to kill him if not. John and two of his friends accidentally go through the gate and land in crazy-world, nearly dying in the process in about ten different ways. Fun catch to this this type of travel: somewhat like the doorways to Narnia, this gate opens anytime it damn pleases within the lifetimes of the current Rifter and Kahlil. John arrives about ten years before Kahlil becomes John's roommate in the first place; Kahlil follows, but he gets tossed forward another twenty years or so, without his memories or tattoos and with one hell of a headache.

With a solid skill that makes me think she used to be a Stargate script writer***, Hale manages to knit these unraveled timelines together, switching back and forth between times and character viewpoints in a way that ought to have that hack George R.R. Martin twitching with envy. John meets Kahlil's younger self, setting the latter's timeline awry; Kahlil eventually catches up with John's much older self, figuring out what happened and didn't happen to him in the meantime. Their mission: save the world and each other.

It's gloriously pulpy. Anyone who claims to read science fiction and fantasy for the high-minded ideals and meticulously plausible scientific concepts is just the sort of asshole who says he's going to a strip club for the beer selection.**** We all go for the naked girls, okay? Just like everyone who really appreciates fantasy does so for the sword fights, weird magic, and climactic villain destruction.

The Rifter has all of those, and the weird magic is truly the star. There's magical travel that appears to happen in the complete nothingness between subatomic particles (complete with an interesting reference to moving with and not against the forces holding matter together), bone and blood sorcery that binds life into etched skeletons, and quite a bit more that kept me fascinated throughout.

But what really blew me away was that I have -- ladies and gentleman, brace yourselves
-- never read a work of fiction that uses the world-as-flesh idea quite the way The Rifter does. To make sure I wasn't missing anything, I consulted the best-read expert I know (Hi, Mom!! nice chatting with you) and she hadn't ever read anything like this either outside of mythology.

I'm going to be giving this book a high star rating in a moment, but what would an Indiscriminate Reader review be without the bad news? The names in the other world are cheesy, and they even have some apostrophes. That drove me nuts. For the first three quarters of the story, the timeline-switching kept the suspense high; each move from place to place offered a few more hints about what was really going on in the other, and it was done very skilfully. On the other hand, by the time the last couple of switches happened it had really all been cleared up, and then the pacing started to drag. Since I'm listing all my small quibbles at once, might as well add that I don't like this author's habit of using characters' names when a pronoun or two would unclutter the text in a big way.

Last but not least, let's get one big elephant out of the room. Astute readers may have noticed that the genre in this one's heading isn't just fantasy. It's gay fantasy, specifically published and marketed as such by Blind Eye Books, a small independent press with a distinct niche. Regular readers may remember my review of Lynn Flewelling's The White Road, a fantasy sequel that features gay protagonists, as Blind Eye's books do: protagonists so gay that their sheer gayness overwhelmed anything else that the Nightrunner series had to offer. As the series progressed past the first two very decent books, the characters' sexual orientation began to feel like more and more of a gimmick designed to compensate for the relative blandness and unoriginality of the series overall.

If gay characters are not for you, then they're not. It's not a problem for me; what is are characters who are primarily defined by their sexuality, as I've ranted about before. It cracks me up that The Rifter, a book specifically marketed using and nominally defined by the characters' sexuality, actually contains far less emphasis on the protagonists' orientation and far more extensive character development than either the Nightrunner series or the latest bestselling "literary" fantasy I read.*****

Frankly, I doubt Hale would have a chance in hell at getting her fantasy published by Tor or Baen or even Orbit. This isn't because her characters are too gay for a regular publisher; Spectra (part of Bantam Dell/Random House/evil empire/etc.) published The White Road. It's because Hale's books don't have anyone getting raped by a whip-wielding dragon angel CIA agent with nine mouths and a hot demon sister, or any of the other current horrific trends in what passes for mainstream fantasy, that's why. And good on her.

I have to give this book two ratings: three and a half stars overall, but a clean five in what passes for its genre these days.

* The series, now releasing in a four-part paperback edition, started as a ten-part e-book serial: The Shattered Gates, Servant of the Crossed Arrows, Black Blades, Witches' Blood, The Holy Road, Broken Fortress, Enemies and Shadows, The Silent City, The Iron Temple, and His Holy Bones.

** Granted, many mythologies include gods having vigorous and incestuous sex. Fair enough; does that mean we all want to read about it in detail? Not necessarily.

*** Go watch the SG-1 season eight two-parter finale and tell me I'm wrong if you can.

**** This is always, without exception, the same dude whose favorite Star Trek character is Geordi La Forge.

***** To be fair, this book is a rare exception; many other gay fantasies are gay erotica with swords as an excuse. To be more fair, many straight romance novels (historicals and fantasy) are straight erotica with swords as an excuse. No matter what body parts go where, those books are almost always a waste of time. Reviews to come!

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

World War Z

Author: Max Brooks
Genre: Science Fiction
Original Pub. Date: 2006

Zombies lend themselves so well to film that it's not surprising books aren't their most frequent medium. Given that we're all used to the excitement of low moaning, splashes of gore, and piles of corpses on a big screen, then, it's pretty impressive how well Brooks managed to pull off zombie horror on the page.

The book is done documentary-style in a series of interviews with survivors of the titular apocalypse, in which most of the world's population died after being infected with a mysterious plague that caused typical zombie-like symptoms: living death, an insatiable urge to devour living flesh, American Idol-watching, and horrible moaning. Interviewees include the doctor who was called to tend Patient Zero (in China, naturally), the vice president of the U.S. during part of the ten-year zombie war, the South African mastermind behind the leave-some-civilians-as-bait plan that ultimately saved the world, various military personnel, and a few garden-variety survivors.

World War Z is cleverly written in that each of the interviews tie together, with little bits of information revealed in one interview casting light on tidbits from the last, and various survivors' stories intersecting just enough to be interesting without being too clever. The writing's solid. Suspense is maintained, even though the story's told from a post-war perspective -- no small feat, that. The pacing is good.

This is the point at which, were I some high-falutin' critical reviewer, I might maunder on about whether cannibalism and cold-blooded survival rate calculations render survivors as inhuman as their shambling predators, or about the first world's preparedness for a more realistic pandemic bursting out of China any day now, or about varying political philosophies and their application to a truly dire worldwide emergency. What is it to be human? I might ask. Or, does the possibility of zombies argue for or against the existence of the soul?

Who the hell am I kidding? This book has large-scale military engagements and creepy abandoned cities full of flesh-eating horrors and half-rotted slimy moaning things oozing out of the surf and swamping Indian cargo-ship death-boats by the thousands. I didn't read this for the philosophy, and neither should you.

Four stars -- zombies kick ass.