Agents of Dreamland

August 14, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , , , )

agentsAgents of Dreamland by Caitlín R. Kiernan

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Agents of Dreamland is my first exposure to Caitlín Kiernan. I’ve known of her for a long time (I even had a copy of Silk for a long time), but she never pinged my radar enough for me to read her work. Later, I found a quote of hers where she discarded the use of plot in creative writing, and I, being a function-over-form reader, figured she wasn’t for me. I kept hearing good things about this novella, though, and I figured it was time to try her out.

I’m glad I did, because what I found is a story that has some plot (just enough, really), but excels for its use of language, atmosphere, and mood. It’s a piece that draws on The X-Files as much as Lovecraft, and it paints a picture of a moment that presents a terrible future. It flows through time, and introduces us to a couple of characters who appear to be on the same side, but are only marginally so. We don’t get caught up in their relationship, nor are we presented with the characters in such a way that we find ourselves immediately relating to and caring for them, but that’s not the point of the story, so it’s hard to complain about it.

Kiernan has an hallucinatory style to her narrative that’s a perfect fit for a story like this. Lovecraft’s nameless horrors have always resembled something from a bad acid trip, and here we have a writer who embraces that style with her writing. She also peppers the story with some named horrors lifted right out of our reality, giving the book a sense of reality, and reminding us that we don’t have to look far to find something to fear. The novella is an unsettling piece of work.

Suffice it to say, I’m impressed. I’m not sure if her style would sustain me over the length of an entire novel, but I’m more willing to give her a shot now than I was before. Agents of Dreamland strikes me as a perfect starting point for Kiernan. I can see that she wouldn’t be a writer for just anyone (heck, the jury’s still out on whether she’s one for me), but readers who like the dark and questionable and enjoy stories that aren’t traditionally told should give her a chance.

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Perfect State

July 13, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

perfectPerfect State by Brandon Sanderson

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It seems like whenever I read a Brandon Sanderson novella, I learn of another Brandon Sanderson novella that’s escaped my attention. I wasn’t aware of Perfect State until I finished Snapshot, so of course I had to add it to my list. I started and finished it a lot faster than I expected.

Perfect State starts off telling us about an emperor who is immortal and all-powerful (well, almost; he’s still working on controlling the weather), but it quickly veers out of fantasy and straight into science fiction when we discover that the emperor is living in a computer simulation. This isn’t a spoiler, mind you; it’s revealed within the first ten pages or so. What makes it interesting is that the emperor knows he’s living in a simulation, and that his powers come from the master computer that runs the simulation. It hasn’t stopped him from ruling for hundreds of years and finding more and more challenges to keep him engaged. Then he receives a mandate from the master computer, to find a woman (a liveborn woman, not a Construct) and mate with her. The computer even gives him a list of available women, ranked by compatibility, to make it easier for him.

Sanderson creates an interesting world here, and it’s easy to like Kairominas, the emperor, but the story seems like it has too much wasted potential. There’s nothing extraneous to the story, mind you, but to spend so much time creating this kind of world and using it for such a brief story makes it feel underutilized. I’d like to know more about the other liveborns in their own worlds, and how they feel about being pawns in a simulation. Maybe Sanderson was trying to avoid the tropes of this kind of story, but I can’t help but feel like this is a setting ripe for a larger, more complex kind of story.

Knowing Sanderson as an author, though, there’s a good chance that he’ll revisit this world to tell those other stories. I imagine he’ll stick with telling them using novellas, which will limit the scope of the setting, but maybe he could write them as a series of its own, creating a novel-length story over the span of four or five novellas. That’s just me dreaming, though; there’s no indication this is Sanderson’s plan.

Overall, I enjoyed the story. It was better than the Legion stories, but not as good as The Emperor’s Soul. It’s probably on the same level as Snapshot, which is fitting, since that’s the story that led me to Perfect State. The hardcore Sanderson fans will like it best, but I wouldn’t recommend it as an entry point for readers new to him. It just doesn’t show off his strongest talents.

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Dread Island

July 11, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

dreadDread Island by Joe R. Lansdale

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Dread Island is a story Joe Lansdale wrote for an anthology called Classics Mutilated. In it, the authors take classic stories and mash them together with other genres to see what comes out at the other end. In Dread Island, Lansdale mashes up Huck Finn, Uncle Remus, and the Cthulhu Mythos (along with a dash of Peter Pan) to create what can only be described as some super-mojo storytelling, as one would expect from Lansdale.

Lansdale captures the voice of Mark Twain well, which is no surprise since his East Texas style lends itself to that voice. The themes of his fiction are also parallelled with Twain’s, since they both look at racial injustice in the South. Of all the writers to write like Mark Twain, Lansdale is the best choice; of all the writers to mix in Uncle Remus and Cthulhu into Mark Twain’s style, Lansdale is probably the only choice.

Like a lot of Lansdale’s short stories and novellas, Dread Island is intended for Lansdale’s most hardcore fans. Fans of his Hap and Leonard stories, or his East Texas mysteries like Sunset and Sawdust or A Fine Dark Line, might not be prepared for this much of an oddity, especially if they haven’t read, say, “Bob the Dinosaur Goes to Disneyland” or “Dog, Cat, and Baby”. Lansdale’s delving into his weird oeuvre here, which is much weirder than his standard fiction.

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Snapshot

July 7, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

snapshotSnapshot by Brandon Sanderson

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Another month, another Sanderson novella. The last two Mistborn books came out within about six months of each other, the next Stormlight Archive book is due out before the end of the year, and here we have another novella that appears out of nowhere. Seriously, does this guy ever sleep?

Not that I’m complaining, mind you. The Emperor’s Soul was one of those novellas, and it’s one of the finest works of fiction I’ve read this year. The two Legion novellas weren’t the best things I’ve ever read, but they were readable and engaging. The same could be said of Snapshot: not great, but good.

In Snapshot, technology exists that allows people to recreate an entire day. We’re not talking about a hard-light holographic projection like the Danger Room, but an actual recreation, all the way down to the quantum level. Though expensive, the technology allows police officers to revisit a crime scene to find evidence that’s been overlooked. When the story opens, this is exactly what’s happening.

In the afterword, Sanderson talks about how he separate science fiction and fantasy — in science fiction, writers try to realistically extrapolate the future, while in fantasy, writers explore an effect, justifying it through worldbuilding. I mention that because I find Sanderson’s fantasy to be much more convincing than his science fiction, which is odd, since for me the heart of a story lies in its characters. For whatever reason, Sanderson’s fantasy characters are more relateable than his science fiction characters, and I wonder how much of that is tied into the worldbuilding. Granted, the only fiction of his I’ve read that I’d consider science fiction are this piece and his Legion novellas, so I wonder if it’s more due to him not having as much space to develop his characters (though Shai and Gaotona in The Emperor’s Soul were remarkably realized).

At its heart, Snapshot is a detective story, using science fictional technology, and true to form, Sanderson doesn’t resort to using the usual tropes one would find in that genre. He has two cops investigating two crimes in the Snapshot, doing their best not to create any diversions that would alter either crime scene. While inside, they discover another crime, and begin investigating that one, too. What they find, though, is beyond what they expected.

The story is a good one, and is well told, but it lacks the OOMPH that some of his other stories have. Fans will eat this up, as will anyone looking for something new in a detective story. I wonder if more casual readers would like it, but Sanderson’s style is natural, enough so to draw the reader in to his world. Snapshot is a solid read, even if it’s not among Sanderson’s best works.

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Reunion

July 5, 2017 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

reunionReunion by Rick Hautala

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I tried re-reading Rick Hautala’s books last year, but gave up on them three books into his bibliography. They weren’t that substantial, and I questioned his portrayal of women in his stories, so I moved on to other writers. This year, I discovered I had a novella of his among my e-books, and figured I would give him another shot.

Reunion is the story of a young boy, thirteen, who’s out camping with his best friend when they get it into their head to crash a party out at the country club. Parallel to this story is one involving John, a man in his mid-forties who’s desperately trying to attend his class reunion. The two stories intersect in strange ways, and Jackie, the thirteen-year old, is given much to consider.

This isn’t a horror story, though it has some supernatural elements to it that probably make it fantasy, though even that is a judicious use of the term. Hautala has to bring his two main characters together, and he uses the simplest method possible to do it. The story isn’t about its fantasy, though; it’s about the lesson Jackie has to learn.

One of Hautala’s skills is in capturing the emotions of his characters (I still have a vivid memory of how menacing a croquet mallet was in Dark Silence), and he uses them to great effect in this story. We have to understand John’s emotions to understand his part in the story, and we have to understand Jackie’s emotions to understand the consequences of the events, and we get them through the story. That the story is a little underwhelming isn’t the fault of the emotions as much as it is the structure of the story.

Hautala spends a lot of time creating John, the adult character, though the structure suggests he’s a bit of an incidental character. The story starts out alternating chapters between Jackie and John, but once John has served his purpose, his chapters stop, even though we’re only about halfway through the novella. I expected the novella to maintain that structure, so it was odd when it veered off in a different direction. It’s necessary to get John’s point of view to get the whole story, but how Hautala incorporates the two stories doesn’t feel natural.

Reunion shows me I shouldn’t dismiss Hautala due to his earlier works, but neither does it make me want to run out and read everything else he wrote. I have a couple of his later novels in my to-read stack, which I still plan to read, but beyond that, I’m just not that interested. Maybe those other novels will change my mind (especially if they’re structured more naturally).

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Tortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium

June 14, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

soulsTortured Souls: The Legend of Primordium by Clive Barker

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With Clive Barker, I’m a take-it-or-leave-it reader. I used to read his stuff as religiously as I did Stephen King’s, but over time, I lost interest. I’m not sure why; the man still has a vivid imagination that goes into some dark, dark places, and every time I read another work of his, I’m impressed. I wouldn’t have read this novella, except for the fact that it was part of the Subterranean Press Humble Bundle.

Only, Tortured Souls isn’t really a novella. It’s a collection of six short stories Barker wrote to promote a series of figurines he produced with Todd McFarlane. It’s easy to tell from the stories which figure is the focus of each story, but it starts with Agonistes, a being who can take mortals and make them into nightmares. The book begins with his legend, and then moves on to two characters whom he recreates into something to take revenge. Seeing as this is Clive Barker, this isn’t just a pop-’em-in-the-back-of-the-head kind of revenge; it’s much more torturous and graphic.

By themselves, the stories suffer because Barker doesn’t do much to describe the creatures in each story. Each chapter is prefaced with an illustration, but not all of them are descriptive, and it seems like Barker was relying on the figures to serve as the description. In their original release, this would have been fine, but in a collected book format, we needed more than what he provided. Pictures of the figurines would have been ideal, but I suppose there’s copyright interfering with that possibility.

Also, the stories were written to be standalone, inasmuch as they were released individually with the figures, so a few of them give a summation of the stories that precede them. Again, this makes sense, given their original release method, but as a standalone collection being marketed as a novella, it’s redundant. I’m not sure why the author or an editor didn’t clean up parts like that to make the story flow better.

Finally, for as much as the story is about the two main characters, there wasn’t much connection to them. The stories read more like vignettes, even though they all together made up a larger story, so we don’t get much of an insight into what makes them tick. The characters are who they need to be, no questions asked. Sure, it keeps the story moving forward, but it doesn’t make the reader empathize with what’s happening to them.

The overall story here is interesting enough, and the imagery is memorable, but there’s not much here to recommend it to readers outside of his hardcore fan base. It’s a quick read, certainly, but there are better Barker books to read for people who are unfamiliar with his style. Imajica or Weaveworld would be better places to start for casual readers, though anyone into dark fiction would do better to start with The Hellbound Heart or The Damnation Game.

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Beast in the Basement

June 13, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

beastBeast in the Basement by Jason Arnopp

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Before starting this book, I knew there was going to be a twist in it. I hadn’t heard of the author before, so when I saw something suggesting this was a good, tight read, I checked a few reviews to see what they had to say, and nearly all of them talked about the shocking twist. So, yes, I was predisposed to expect it, but I think even if I had gone into the story blind, I would have been expecting some kind of twist. It was evident the way Arnopp wrote the story that something wasn’t all that it seemed.

To his credit, Arnopp did surprise me. Despite expecting the twist, I didn’t figure it out before its reveal. It wasn’t even a cheat, either, since the story as he wrote it supports the direction it takes. It reminded me of the twist in Shyamalan’s The Visit, not that it’s similar in any way, but in the way it takes you by surprise, and in the way it doesn’t conclude with that twist, but instead takes you a little further into the story once it’s revealed.

For all that, though, the twist seemed a little ridiculous. I’m not saying it’s implausible, or unsupportable, but it didn’t have the kind of impact I expected, given how well Arnott sets up the tension of the story. It was a kind of “That’s it?” moment, and then a shake of my head as it concluded. Like Stephen King’s reveal of Pennywise’s true form, the truth of this story didn’t live up to the setup.

There’s really just one main character in the story, though Arnopp brings in a potential love interest for him. She’s barely defined, and not much of a character, despite being necessary for the main character’s development. It would have been different if he had realized her character more, but as it is, she’s there simply as a means to motivate the main character, and winds up being window dressing.

Arnopp’s previous credits include several screenplays, which shows in this novella. He tells more than he shows, and the pacing is a bit clunky, as it seems to progress too slowly at first, though it does pick up near the end. In fact, I think this story would work well as a short movie, since plot-wise, the story succeeds fairly well.

Ultimately, the story is all plot, without sufficient character development. In some cases, this is OK (Dean Koontz’s Icebound is one of those stories, and I remember tearing through that book in one sleepless night), but here, it feels like a detriment. It’s not a bad story (judging by the number of four- and five-star reviews, it certainly isn’t), but maybe I’m not the right audience for it. Still, it was only 99 cents, and I’ve read a lot worse than this for more money than that.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen

June 12, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords15The Two of Swords: Part Fifteen by K.J. Parker

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This installment of The Two of Swords — the last one to become available — was published in April 2016. According to Amazon, the next installment won’t be available until June of this year. That’s over one whole year that’s passed since Parker last released a chapter of this story. I can’t imagine waiting that long for it; heck, I’m impatient to wait the four months until then! The good news is Parker at least brought the story to a good stopping point before taking that hiatus.

For one, we finally learn the ultimate goal of the Lodge. I’m not going to tell you what that is, but rest assured, we do get an answer. (Maybe. Lord knows, Parker hasn’t been playing us completely straight this whole time, so who’s to say he’s not throwing us another red herring?) We also get a few new characters, revisit some we’ve seen before, and start to see how all these various plot points are coming together. As it is, if Parker had to break the story at a point before taking some time away from the story, he picked the right place for it.

There are actually two chapters to this installment, which was odd, but makes sense, since the second one was only about twelve pages long. It was weird seeing them break within the same ebook, but I understand once this is complete, it will be published as a single volume, so if nothing else, this setup gives us a taste of that. Plus, this isn’t the first time Parker has put two chapters in one installment; it’s just the other one was only three extra pages.

So, I’m kinda bummed that it’s over, but I’m looking forward to what remains. Part Fifteen wraps up some of the loose ends, but we still have a lot of frays that need mending. As good as this first half (?) has been, the second half should be mighty impressive.

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The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen

June 9, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords14The Two of Swords: Part Fourteen by K.J. Parker

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It seems a little late in the story to be bringing in new characters, but Parker does exactly that in Part Fourteen. Chanso, the archer who shot Corason in the last chapter, becomes our point-of-view character, through which we get to see the devastation of war (again), along with some insight into the Lodge. The Lodge has been presented to us as a well-meaning, duplicitous-yet-honorable group that (maybe?) wants what’s best for everyone at the end. The problem is that the ends justify the means, as we see in this installment.

As the story began, I had reservations, since we were dropped into a new group of people, and had to learn about them for most of the chapter. It seemed like a bad time to be bringing in new characters, since the main story felt like it was nearing a pivotal moment, but of course I should have trusted Parker. This chapter, like the Lodge’s actions, was a means to the end, which was to give us further insight into the war and its history. Parker does a great job of showing us complex events through the eyes of people who have only a tenuous grasp of the larger picture, and Chanso is another of those characters.

The good news is the chapters are getting longer again, so it feels like we’re making progress; the bad news is there’s a lot of new exposition to wade through to get to that progress. Whenever I start to question the relevance of where Parker’s taking us, I try to remember that I’ve trusted him this far, and that my trust hasn’t been misplaced. I need to keep moving forward, knowing that Parker is going to give us what we want, even if it’s going to be a little longer getting it than we would like.

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The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen

June 6, 2017 at 5:00 pm (Reads) (, , )

swords13The Two of Swords: Part Thirteen by K.J. Parker

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True to form, Part Thirteen picks up immediately after the end of Part Twelve, as Corason rides out of town. Immediately, Corason picks up someone trailing him, who he ultimately learns is Eudaemonia Frontizoriastes. She wears a veil, which put me in mind of Lysao, from Part Eight, but it turns out she’s someone different. She’s from the East, where women can be ordained as agents, so maybe that gives us an additional clue regarding Lysao? Possibly. It’s Parker, so we’ll have to guess until we know for sure.

This is a short chapter (24 pages!), but that’s probably for the best. Corason is annoying, and while Eudaemonia is more interesting, their banter is a little tiresome. What redeems the chapter is what we learn about the war. Something curious is going on, which could mean that Forza is still alive (no one seems to believe he is, but Parker hasn’t shown us a body yet, either), or it could mean something else. What that something else could be, though, is still a mystery. Maybe. Parker writes in such a way that he doesn’t give you all the answers explicitly, though all the answers are in the story. I’m not paying close enough attention to get it all.

I’ve seen people complain about the price of each chapter, and with Part Thirteen, I can begin to understand it. I mean, if this book runs 23 chapters, I will have paid $22.77, which is still cheaper than a lot of hardcover books, but to pay the same price for 24 pages when the other chapters run 50-70 pages, I can sort of understand it. Of course, this far along, I’ll keep paying for them as they release them. I can’t deny that it works as a marketing ploy.

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