You Should Read: China Miéville’s THE CITY AND THE CITY

Summary: When a murdered woman is found in the city of Beszel, somewhere at the edge of Europe, it looks to be a routine case for Inspector Tyador Borlú of the Extreme Crime Squad. But as he investigates, the evidence points to conspiracies far stranger and more deadly than anything he could have imagined. (From Random House)

A very good book is one which, when it’s over, you can’t clearly define a place where you’d have written it differently. The City and The City is like that for me. I started the beginning of the book being intrigued by a noir-ish murder mystery, then being confused by the concept of the split towns, then fascinated by the controversial history of the place.

Imagine a detective story set in a non-US country that’s a little old-fashioned, maybe just getting used to the idea of 21st century commercialism. Set it in a place that used to have a bigger, grander, and ultimately impossible sort of economy, a place that has recently become exposed to the influence of the West, like Russia after the fall of the USSR. Now take the feel of the place, and set it somewhere geographically more Mediterranean, or move it West so that it’s still in Europe but closer to Spain. Give it a strange set of rules about who you can look at, which buildings you can acknowledge, which traffic accidents you’re allowed to notice. Into that story I want you to set an old-school detective, working in a strictly controlled environment with only barely-modern equipment and forensic science, who’s got to discover the identity of a dead girl that no one admits to knowing, and who might be from that part of the city that you’ve been raised since birth to ignore.

With all of that, you might have an idea of what Mieville’s book is capable of. This one geographically confined place morphs into three cities by the time the tale is done, due to overlapping and contested territories, but Mieville makes it work for him, until you’re nodding along with the story thinking, “Oh, well, yeah, that makes sense.” Of course, that’s not even half of the story, which also involves the people who patrol the borders of a city that is both two places and only one place at the same time, a few more murders, and one hell of a conspiracy theory.

The City and The City does make sense after all, and by the time you reach the end and the conclusion and the understanding washes over you and you finally see not just one city but all three of them at the same time, the book becomes so clear you wonder why you didn’t notice that in the first place.

ISBN: 978-0-345-49751-2 (0-345-49751-1) Format: Hardcover, 336 pages (Though I read it as an eBook)

 

You Should Read: J. P. Moore’s TOOTHLESS

Summary: Toothless is an epic tale of war and redemption set in 12th century Europe. An ancient evil is on the march. An army of demons and undead rampages across the countryside, spreading death and destruction. Judgment has come. The world of the living teeters on the edge of ruin. One knight, a failed Templar, returns to the battlefield to avenge his wife and daughter. The dice are cast against him, and he is slain only to rise in service to the very evil that he hoped to destroy. He is a gifted minion. But life is not done with him yet. (From DragonMoon Press)

Toothless is the story of a zombie hero, if there can be such a thing, set in a medieval Europe devastated by the advance of a demonic army. Riding ahead of this unstoppable mass of death is a plague which strikes any living creature. Behind the plague comes the army of risen undead, pulled from the recently killed soldiers who died trying to defeat it. Toothless is told by an omniscient narrator who gives us the stories of two outcasts: Martin, the dead Templar who’s second life as a zombie with no lower jaw is the subject of most of the book, and Lil, the deformed psychic teen girl who just happens to be protected by the church.

Part of what I love about Moore’s work is that he took a story which, on its surface, seems a little ridiculous, and made it not only believable but gripping. His world is darker and gets darker still with the introduction of a main character that you slowly realize is never going to become a better person. Toothless is a monster. That he may also save world is beside the point. As an exploration of humanity, Toothless is terribly exciting because, freed from the living Martin’s responsibilities, he devolves into a creature who does remarkably bad things, over and over again. At some point the not-yet-dead around him realize his potential as a saviour, and rally around him on his journey to defeat the source of the desolation, but that doesn’t make Toothless a good guy. He still kills, still thrives on the blood and energy he’s washed in with the death of every victim, and is still an unabashed drunk.

He simply aims his talent for murder in the direction of the bad guys for a while.

Moore’s book, which began life as a podcast, is not cheerful, and only barely hopeful. It exists in an alternate history of our own Earth, in a dark age we very nearly can’t climb out of.

I loved reading this book.

I am, admittedly, a zombie fangirl, and I’m always on the lookout for new takes on the decreasingly-original theme. J.P. Moore’s Toothless is startlingly original, with a breadth and depth unusual in a zombie novel, but one that only adds to the feeling of withering melancholy which rises up from this story the way Martin rose up and became Toothless.

Toothless is due out October 31, 2010.

J.P. Moore is @jpmoo on twitter, and the cover artist Scott Purdy is @scottpurdy on twitter

 

You Should Read: Stephen King’s THE STAND

Synopsis: One man escapes from a biological weapon facility after an accident, carrying with him the deadly virus known as Captain Tripps, a rapidly mutating flu that – in the ensuing weeks – wipes out most of the world’s population. In the aftermath, survivors choose between following an elderly black woman to Boulder or the dark man, Randall Flagg, who has set up his command post in Las Vegas. The two factions prepare for a confrontation between the forces of good and evil. (from StephenKing.com)

Obviously, the first question is: Why am I reviewing a book that came out in 1978?

The answer: I review what I read. My husband decided to read it this week, which means he and I are talking about it, and since I’ve read it dozens of times, I thought I should talk to you about it too. Good reason? Ok then.

Next question: What’s it about?

Normally I prefer to talk about my opinions instead of giving a more thorough overview, but The Stand is over 800 pages long, so the paragraph synopsis isn’t going to be quite enough. It begins with the setup, introducing you to the characters you’re going to be spending so much time with, a few that won’t stick around for very long, and the world itself, which as you can guess isn’t going to be with us for too long either. The Stand is told from the point of view of an omnipotent narrator, who sees all and knows all, so you get the thoughts and feelings of characters who don’t ever get to meet up with our hero, Stu Redmond. This book unfolds before you, no secrets held back, no stone left unturned. King can give you two sentences about a random girl, but in those two sentences you know something intimate about her character, making her a real person. Who’s about to die. Along with nearly everyone else on the planet.

You also get a New York charmer, smooth and a bit slimy, in Larry Underwood. He’s the underfoot, under-appreciated, underdog, that Larry Underwood, just trying to make a name for himself as a singer and guitar player. Of course, he “ain’t no good guy,” as his mother and just about every other woman in the book point out. It’s pretty obvious that Larry’s going to want to be Stu, since Stu’s the man that everyone is going to want to be. After all, he’s the guy that’s going to have the plan, save the girl, and lead his people out of the desert. He’s the Texan, the straightforward cowboy hero, and if he doesn’t have a horse to ride in on, well that’s ok, because King thoughtfully provides him with a motorcycle, which will do the trick. Hallelujah.

Thankfully, King doesn’t actually make Stu into someone quite so perfect, and even Stu ends up wanting to be more like the man everyone thinks he is. It just takes 500 pages to figure that out.

What’s the conflict?

You’d think the world as we know it dying in a fit of phlegm would be conflict enough, but it actually serves as the beginning of the story instead of the end. The real story is about the classic fight of good vs. evil. Larry isn’t the real bad guy, he’s just not a great guy to begin with, and has to struggle to learn how to be better. Stu isn’t the only good guy, either, he’s just trying to be the man everyone needs him to be. The bad guys of the story all have their reasons for being on the wrong side, making them complex characters who can’t easily be dismissed. Our Good Guy squad is rounded out by the Girl That Guys are in Love With, the Old Professor, the Disabled People, the Happy Hick, a few Doctors, and a Friendly Dog. On the other side of the story, the side with storm clouds, neon signs and hot rods, are a Slutty Teen, The Whore of Babylon, the Ex-Additcs, a Grumpy Cop, few Criminals, and some Wolves.

King needed truly bad and truly good to give all those other people flags to rally under. Good and Evil as archetypes are too simple to be human, since we have far too many flaws and hopes and guilty pleasures to ever be just one thing. King brings in the big guns, the angel and the demon, God and the Devil, and introduces their champions as the flag bearers for the darkness and the light.

The sheer number of characters in this novel is astounding – King’s population rivals that of a major metropolitan city.The Stand gives us old women, young women, mothers, new wives, children, and angry victims. It shows us a retarded man and a deaf-mute, who manage to find each other and, in their own ways, make useful contributions to their new society. It gives us bad guys, selfish guys, criminals, soldiers, stupid people, lost people, and Trashcan Man, who lives to burn. Each of them has a past, a present, a favorite thing. When you meet them in the story you see the color of their hair and the patterns on the soles of their shoes. It’s these details that make what was, otherwise, your average viral apocalypse into a story worth reading.

King’s power to tell a great story is in his willingness to go on, and on. And on. He’s not interested in getting to the end of the story as much as he wants to show you every excruciating detail along the way. If you’re looking for a book that will take you into the belly of a new world and carefully describe everything from the color of the dust beneath your feet to the feel of snow on your skin to the sound of wolves howling up on the mountain, I can’t recommend The Standstrongly enough.

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s A LOCAL HABITATION

Synopsis: After spending fourteen years lost to both the fae and mortal worlds, only to be dragged back into Faerie by the murder of someone close to her, October “Toby” Daye really just wants to spend a little time getting her footing. She’s putting her life back together. Unfortunately, this means going back to work for Duke Sylvester Torquill of Shadowed Hills, doing her duty as a knight errant. That isn’t the sort of thing that exactly lends itself to a quiet existence, and before she knows it, Toby’s back on the road, heading for the County of Tamed Lightning in Fremont, California to check on Sylvester’s niece, January. (From Seanan McGuire‘s site)

NOTE: This is the second novel in the October Daye series. My review of the first novel, Rosemary and Rue, can be found HERE.

So, Toby isn’t dead yet. This is good both because there are a few more books in this series still to be published, and because she fills a niche that no one else in her world seems to want to take over. Given how much damage she takes in the process of solving her mysteries, that’s not really a surprise. October Daye (Toby, if you don’t want her to hit you) is still under oath to her liege, still living in her low-rent apartment in the City, and still oblivious to the fairly obvious feelings of the men around her. What’s new is the part where she’s sent off to solve a new crime, gets injured in new and interesting ways, and meets a few more of the less savory types of fae.

The basic story is that Toby is busy living her faux-human life in San Francisco, where she follows cheating spouses and finds missing kids for a living. After she spent 14 years as a fish, and then some more time as the anti-social store clerk we meet in Rosemary and Rue, it’s nice to see that Toby is trying to make friends again, and the book opens with her enjoying a girls night out with a few changeling ladies from her old life. Her life hasn’t changed too much though: same job, same cats, same rosegoblin, same giant case of the dumb where Tybalt is concerned.

What should have been a simple request by Duke Sylvester ends up putting Toby, and the pure-blood page, Quentin, in the middle of two warring Fairie counties. If that weren’t dicey enough, our detective has happened upon a murder that needs solving.

McGuire keeps to the strict first-person perspective that helps set this series apart from other books in the genre. Toby doesn’t know anything that she doesn’t have direct knowledge of, which means that there are times she gets it wrong. Even better, McGuire doesn’t “cheat” by giving Toby a dozen well-informed advisers to fill her in on everything under the sun. There were a few times that  I’d figured out a clue before Toby did, and that added to the feeling of anticipation. When you can see the monster just outside the window, the story isn’t so much about figuring out if the monster is really there as it is finding out what your heroine will do when it finally catches up to her. McGuire gives us monsters, and Toby is a hero, however reluctantly, because the harder it gets, the more she resigns herself to never giving up.

Lately it seems that everyone wants to write the perfect killer sex goddess, who breaks a thousand hearts while simultaneously defeating the undead/vampire/werewolf/mage/human horde. Toby might be attractive (some of the other characters seem to think so, though she appears to be too busy to look in a mirror most days) and she might be able to survive quite a few gunshots, but she also makes mistakes. I don’t like everything she does but these flaws make Toby real. Real isn’t cookie cutter. Real isn’t perfect. Real isn’t straightforward. You can cheer for her or be confused by her, outsmart her or be enlightened by her, want to be her or be glad you’re not, but one thing you won’t be able to do is predict what Toby will do next.

To find out, I suggest buying An Artificial Night, third book in the October Daye series, due out September 2010.

Seanan McGuire, A Local Habitation, DAW Books, 2010. ISBN 0756405963

* I read A Local Habitation as an ebook, a departure from my usual method of devouring paper-and-print texts. I bought the ebook version because my local bookstore didn’t have a copy in stock, and I didn’t want to wait a week for Amazon to ship me one. I didn’t love having to read it on my iPod (I see an ebook reader purchase in my future) but I didn’t have any problems with the formatting or readability of the book itself. I still plan to buy books the usual way, but it’s nice to know that with this series, digital is an option.

 

You Should Read: Seanan McGuire’s ROSEMARY AND RUE

Synopsis: The world of Faerie never disappeared: it merely went into hiding, continuing to exist parallel to our own. Secrecy is the key to Faerie’s survival—but no secret can be kept forever, and when the fae and mortal worlds collide, changelings are born. Half-human, half-fae, outsiders from birth, these second-class children of Faerie spend their lives fighting for the respect of their immortal relations. Or, in the case of October “Toby” Daye, rejecting it completely. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the fae world, retreating into a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, Faerie has other ideas.

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose, one of the secret regents of the San Francisco Bay Area, pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby is forced to resume her old position as knight errant to the Duke of Shadowed Hills and begin renewing old alliances that may prove her only hope of solving the mystery…before the curse catches up with her. (From SeananMcGuire.com)

Seanan McGuire skips the backstory and drops you straight into the action with Rosemary and Rue, starting her debut novel with a crime already in progress. October Daye, who would prefer to be called Toby just the same way that you would prefer no one punched you in the face, is tracking down the kidnapped wife and daughter of her pure-blooded liege, Duke Sylvester. To complicate matters, it’s a crime committed by the Duke’s own brother, and tracking a fugitive fae through the human world means a lot of being subtle and trying to blend in. Have I mentioned that Toby isn’t very good at subtle? Instead of saving the day, she falls victim to the bad guy’s superior magic, is trapped in the body of an ornamental koi fish for over a decade, and loses her self-esteem and her family in one fell swoop.

The fish thing wears off, eventually, though too late for Toby to be able to explain it to the daughter she seemingly abandoned. This is the woman we get properly introduced to: a dejected, failed detective, living alone in a bad part of town with no friends, no family, no future, and a dead-end supermarket job that barely pays the rent. She lives in a dark place, to be sure, but much of that is of her own making, since Toby’s worked very hard to keep away anyone that might have made her feel better. Duke Sylvester? She doesn’t return his phone calls. Her old changeling friends? She makes excuses so she doesn’t have to see the happy families that they have, and she doesn’t. Her job? Her PI license lapsed while she was nibbling tourists’ bread in a cold pool, and she doesn’t have the confidence in herself to want to get it back. She has exactly one friend in the world, the Countess Winterrose, but of course Toby can’t see the woman’s helping her out of anything more than obligation. It’s a pity party, table for one, and only Toby Daye is invited.

This is where McGuire’s story really starts.

What do you do with a half-breed fairie woman who’s lost, literally, everything she held dear? You kill off her one remaining supporter, of course, and that’s exactly what happens when Winterrose is brutally murdered. Without any idea of what’s happening around her, Toby has to return to the only skill she has: finding the answers.

To be honest, I don’t read many fantasy novels. I prefer my fiction to be desolate, apocalyptic, and dangerous. Fairies, to me, are a lot like sparkly vampires: they’re based on creatures which were, originally, something much worse, but they’ve been prettied up to fit in with the buying habits of tween girls and unmarried aunts. Fairies now mean fluttery and flowery and beautiful, but I know better than to believe that. Fairies are supposed to be nasty, bitey little creatures, and impossibly beautiful ice queens, and confusing things made of mixed together bits of tree branches and stolen shoes. They’re not creatures of light and happiness, no matter how much glitter you slap on them. Too few people want to write about the dark side of fairies.

Seanan McGuire understands the dark.

She blends together Shakespeare, Irish legends, Japanese myth, medieval ballads, and Victorian Flower Fairies to tell a tale so familiar it doesn’t occur to you to look for where she’s gotten it wrong because it’s all unbelievably right. Toby lives in a world that makes sense, in a sad and disturbing way, because it’s our world, if you could see just a little more of it.

I started reading Rosemary and Rue, expecting to put it back down again, but I ended up hiding in the bedroom and telling my husband to make his own dinner so I didn’t have to quit until it was done. I loved this story, and can’t wait to read the next in what I hope is a very long series.

Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue, DAW Books, 2009. 368 pages. ISBN 0756405718.

The second book in the series, A Local Habitation, is out as of March 2010, and I review it HERE.