AMERICAN WAR by Omar El Akkad

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American War

By Omar El Akkad
Knopf — April 2017
ISBN 9780451493583 — 352 Pages — Hardcover


My latest review for Skiffy and Fanty is on Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War. Check out the complete review on the site, here.
My condensed review:
“A powerful & dark literary character study on the atrocities that war can breed in an individual, but fails in its speculative foundations and in its relevance to America.”

DEFYING DOOMSDAY, Edited by Tsana Dolichva & Holly Kench

Freshly posted yesterday, my latest review for Skiffy & Fanty

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“People with disability already live in a post-apocalyptic world.” – Robert Hoge

This crowd-funded anthology of post-apocalyptic fiction showcases the theme of disabled or chronically-ill protagonists. Edited by Tsana Dolichva and Holly Kench, the collection features many Aussie female writers (though not exclusively) and names likely both familiar and new to speculative fiction readers. With all of its diversity in characters, apocalyptic setting, and featured disability/illness, Defying Doomday is remarkably consistent in tone and quality

Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Contents:

And the Rest of Us Wait by Corinne Duyvis
To Take Into the Air My Quiet Breath by Stephanie Gunn
Something in the Rain by Seanan McGuire
Did We Break the End of the World? by Tansy Rayner Roberts
In the Sky with Diamonds by Elinor Caiman Sands
Two Somebodies Go Hunting by Rivqa Rafael
Given Sufficient Desperation by Bogi Takács
Selected Afterimages of the Fading by John Chu
Five Thousand Squares by Maree Kimberley
Portobello Blind by Octavia Cade
Tea Party by Lauren E Mitchell
Giant by Thoraiya Dyer
Spider-Silk, Strong as Steel by Samantha Rich
No Shit by K Evangelista
I Will Remember You by Janet Edwards

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher tin exchange for an honest review.

Eric Nyquist Cover Reveal: CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT by S.C. Flynn

This week’s reviews are still being written amid the Molecular Genetics of Bacteria and Phage conference, but in the meantime I have some other items to quick post, including the reveal of this excellent cover for a title that I’m looking forward to reading. Look for my upcoming review of it coming toward the end of this month. For now, perhaps the premise interests you too:

Here is the cover created by Californian artist Eric Nyquist for S.C. Flynn’s Australian post-apocalyptic fantasy novel CHILDREN OF THE DIFFERENT. The novel releases on September 10 in ebook, paperback and audiobook and the ebook version is available now for pre-order on Kindle:(Amazon US), (Amazon UK) or (Amazon Australia).

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Nineteen years ago, a brain disease known as the Great Madness killed most of the world’s population. The survivors all had something different about their minds. Now, at the start of adolescence, their children enter a trance-like state known as the Changeland and emerge either with special mental powers or as cannibalistic Ferals.

In the great forest of South West Western Australia, thirteen-year-old Arika and her twin brother Narrah go through the Changeland. They encounter an enemy known as the Anteater who feeds on human life. He exists both in the Changeland and in the outside world, and he wants the twins dead.

After their Changings, the twins have powers that let them fight their enemy and face their destiny on a long journey to an abandoned American military base on the north-west coast of Australia…if they can reach it before time runs out.

Read more about Flynn’s take on the cover, and find an extract of the novel to read, on his Goodreads blog.

THE NIGHT OF THE LONG KNIVES by Fritz Leiber

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The Night of the Long Knives
By Fritz Leiber
Dover Publications – July 2015
ISBN 9780486798011 – 112 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Originally published in a 1960’s issue of Amazing Science Fiction, this Fritz Leiber novella gets a nice thrifty paperback edition release from Dover Publications as part of their wonderful new Doomsday Classics series. If you are like me you’ll vastly prefer reading these as actual copies rather than poorly formatted digital versions.
I have limited experience with Leiber, so I was intrigued by this just as an excuse to read something by a classic, well-known name in SFF. And as a post-apocalyptic story it intrigued even more.
The post-apocalyptic field has become overcrowded, particularly with a boon in entries by mainstream authors who for whatever reason reject classification within the speculative or fantasy genres. In most cases I’ve been disappointed by these newer works because they fail to add anything significant to the corpus already built by genre and mainstream authors alike. Reading Leiber’s story I did not have this feeling at all. A part of me realized that this was written at a time before these stories were a dime a dozen. So to a degree I gave it grace. Still, I enjoyed the novella regardless of any thematic novelty because while familiar, Leiber writes it with remarkable skill, with elements neither overly complex nor simplified.
The Night of the Long Knives comes from an era full of post-apocalyptic imaginings: the Cold War. As typical throughout forms of media, disaster comes to the world via nuclear annihilation. The United States has been transformed into a waste, the Deathlands. Radiation-scarred survivals struggle for resources in competition and deep mistrust. Two drifters, Ray and Alice, meet upon the site of a crashed flying ship that has made an emergency landing in the barren wilderness. The two form a fragile alliance of mutual benefit faced with the opportunity before them: a possible way out of the Deathlands into one of the few pockets of civilization that may remain.
Along with the survivor of the crashed craft, this makes just three characters in a novella with a rather straight-forward plot. Leiber creates a journey for the reader with explorations of the character’s psychology, their words and actions. As with most post-apocalyptic fiction the key interest is how humans react to one another. The most frightening aspect of The Walking Dead is not the zombies, but what the characters – good or evil – are capable of. The most frightening aspect of The Night of the Long Knives is not the nuclear devastation, but the destroyed basic humanity, the impossibility of bonding. The most frightening aspect of the Cold War is not the nukes, but the nationalism of humans.
The dialogue in The Night of the Long Knives is particularly strong, making each of the characters into people that readers can relate to, at least in some significant, deep fashion. Leiber makes you feel the devastation, the hope and the despair in ways that Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series would later do in Epic Fantasy – or Stephen King of course would with his epic post-apocalyptic The Stand. The emotional and physical struggles of the characters in Leiber’s novella will probably not be anything surprising to a reader. Despite that general familiarity, Leiber’s words remain compelling and still relevant to our hearts over half a century after they were written.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

CITIES AND THRONES by Carrie Patel

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Cities and Thrones
Recoletta Series #2
By Carrie Patel
Angry Robot Books – July 2015
ISBN 9780857665539 – 444 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


I purchased Carrie Patel’s The Buried Life in anticipation of an advanced reading copy of this sequel, and after reading that first volume set-up of Recoletta I was intrigued enough in the story and invested enough in the characters to continue. Yet, I also hoped for some changes. The Buried Life is a combination of post-apocalyptic steampunk with a police procedural. The procedural, or mystery, component to that novel appears dominant as the novel begins, but any expectations for the narrative to continue in that traditional genre vein become shifted as machinations in the background shift the protagonist from trying to solve a mystery/crime to something far larger, sudden political shifts.
The Buried Life introduced the post-apocalyptic setting of a deteriorating, underground city named Recoletta. Inspector Liesl Malone and her partner Rafe Sundar go against an antagonistic city bureaucracy to investigate the murder of a renowned historian. Probing into the lives of the city elite, Malone catches the interest of mysterious Roman Arnault, a complex man whose allegiances and intentions remain guarded. Meanwhile, events draw Jane Lin, a laundress who serves the upper class, into the investigation and she in turn draws involvement of her reporter friend Fredrick Anders. This investigation unravels, or blows up, to toss these characters into a turmoil that picks up here in Cities and Thrones. While Malone remains in a new Recoletta to try and maintain order amid the chaos of political change, Jane and Fredrick flee the city for the world above, a Communes that operates far differently than the existence they’ve known.
The twist in the dominant flavor of that first book from procedural mystery to larger scale political intrigue and conflict was unexpected enough to be jarring, awkward even though my brain told me that I should appreciate subversion of a reader’s comfortable expectations. Even accepting that twist however, I felt so much of the ‘screen time’ had been wasted on setting up what now seemed to be Patel’s real story for Recoletta, the events that would continue in the second volume. I would have favored less of the mystery set up for more of the conflict and intrigue that bursts to the surface. For that reason I enjoyed this second volume, Cities and Thrones, more than its predecessor. It spends its entire time on the characters within the political intrigues of their post-apocalyptic world. The characters still evolve, the story still holds surprises, but unlike with The Buried Life, the kind of story you feel Patel is telling here doesn’t change on you midway.
Not all readers of the Recoletta series will agree with me completely on this of course. Some I know really liked the mystery element to the first novel. I originally had planned on reviewing Cities and Thrones for Skiffy and Fanty. With my delay in being able to writing something up, my reviewing colleague Paul Weimer beat me to the punch. I could offer an alternate view there in theory, but I really have to agree with much of Paul’s reaction to the novel, which he seems to have enjoyed about as much as I. I encourage you to read it here. His only significant criticism with Cities and Thrones is summed up with this:
“For better or worse, the murder mystery in The Buried Life gave the novel a skeleton and a roadmap of a plot on which the author hung her worldbuilding, politics and everything else. That skeleton was sometimes too thick, and the things hung on it too thin for my taste sometimes, but it was an effective template nevertheless. Without that murder mystery as a skeleton, this novel has something of a structure problem.”
I won’t disagree with these perceptions of structure and pacing in Patel’s sequel vis à vis the first novel. But for me the sense of chaos within the plot’s structure and pacing here actually enhanced the novel. It seemed to perfectly fit with the uncertainty at all levels of the character’s predicaments and society.
As in the first novel, Cities and Thrones is mostly concerned with political and economic power, with class structure and divisions. Without a murder investigation surrounding it all, Patel seems more free here to explore these themes. Malone struggles with moral ambiguities between freedom and order, while Jane in particular tries to navigate an entirely new world and way of surviving. They discover truths and strengths, and some personal weaknesses. Patel excels best with forming these two female characters. The males who hold their interest, Roman and Fredrick respectively, are both also complex, but as more expected ‘types’: a mysterious rogue, and the loyal friend. Jane and Malone both show more diversity and unique shift in what ‘type’ their character inhabits as the story continues.
I am looking forward to the next volume in this series, mostly because I find the characters exceptionally fascinating from their ambiguities and imperfections. I don’t know as I’m that invested in what particularly ends up happening to their world or society, as much as I want to see what choices they make, where they go next. With the second novel I felt that Patel has gained surer footing in her construction of the novel, though others may disagree. But for either side of opinions on that, I think that most readers have still enjoyed her building story of Recoletta and its environs.

Disclaimer: I received a free electronic advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

THE DEAD LANDS, by Benjamin Percy

22875435The Dead Lands
By Benjamin Percy
Grand Central Publishing – 14th April 2015
ISBN 9781455528240 – 416 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 It’s been awhile since I’ve read something that I’ve enjoyed one moment, became frustrated and annoyed with the next, returned to enjoying, and alternated back and forth until the closing pages. What it comes down to is that I found I could stomach and enjoy The Dead Lands when I shut off my brain and simply let the thrill of a the post-apocalyptic adventure carry me. If I tried to analyze it as anything more, from themes to the language of the text, I felt like abandoning it.
Percy’s novel has two types of inspiration. One, according to the author’s remarks is his rekindled appreciation of fantasy and long held appreciation of Stephen King’s work, particularly those apocalyptic and those featuring a ‘contained’ society (e.g. Under the Dome or Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption). The other inspiration is from history, the exploration west of the Mississippi led by Lewis and Clark, and guided by Sacagawea, following the Louisiana Purchase.
The historical aspects of the novel are nothing more than loose inspiration, the novel is set after all in a post-apocalyptic former USA, starting in the walled city of St. Louis, which has managed to survive by shutting itself off from the wastelands, the dead lands, surrounding. Kept relatively shielded from the viral and nuclear breakouts that brought an end to the civilization we know, the surviving community of St. Louis has kept going through the careful management of its past mayors and leaders, and the hope that one day they will discover news of a United States still around to rejoin and continue rebuilding.
But Thomas Lancer, the new mayor of St. Louis seems more concerned with maintaining his power and keeping the community insular through fear. When a strange rider named Gawea arrives outside the city walls with news of lush lands and other pockets of civilization to the West, Thomas acts to suppress rather than investigate the possibilities this holds for the city.
Circumstances lead Thomas’ childhood friend, Lewis Meriwether to join with Mina Clark and a group of discontents to escape the ‘sanctuary’ of the city and discover what world and possibilities exist beyond. A passionate woman battling alcohol addiction, Mina Clark yearns for adventure and discovery, the complete opposite to Lewis’ personality, but she is kept grounded by love and devotion for her brother. A quiet tinkerer and intellectual, Lewis has spent his life in St. Louis as an outcast, content to spend his time in the halls of the museum and books of the past age rather than pursuing the political career and position that his father held prior to Thomas taking over. Lewis’ odd nature has begun to evolve into signs of supernatural abilities, and Gawea’s role as messenger includes an invitation for Lewis to join the leader of the Pacific community to learn about this next evolutionary step for humanity that he, Lewis, and Gawea each manifest.
The major players of history are thus present here: Meriwether Lewis, William Clark, Thomas Jefferson, and Sakagawea. Their fictional counterparts follow a similar trek towards the Pacific. But similarities end here. Thomas Lancer shares a name and political power with historic Jefferson, but Lancer here tries to keep any exploration from happening, rather than commissioning it. The mayor is painted more like Caligula, corrupt, cruel, and deviant. Initially I was troubled by Percy giving Lancer a young male lover, the seemingly only homosexual relationship of the novel shown as an aspect of his uncontrolled desires. This somewhat was lessened by implying later in the novel that another homosexual attraction existed between characters that shone more positively.
But the pure ‘evilness’ of the villains of The Dead Lands weakened any serious nature to the novel, rendering it more like pulp. Thomas Lancer’s right-hand-man, the town sheriff is sadistic and disturbed, abusing his power, collecting hair from female victims that he uses to decorate a collection of mannequins kept in his hideaway. The leader of the Pacific community is likewise portrayed as rather brutal, singular in vision, and thus none of the villains here are particularly relatable.
Gawea is seen as an other by the community of St. Louis, but unlike the historic Sacagawea there is no particular unique cultural heritage that she displays to give any diversity to the cast of characters. She is given a backstory, but very little unique to herself beyond being a tool for the plot. As an outcast who is largely self-selected, Lewis is also hard to identify with as one of the main protagonists. His distance from other characters likewise keeps him rather distant from the reader. Brief moments are spent as he struggles with his newfound magical abilities, but little of substance is established. The most interesting character is probably Clark, though it is not her complimentary/clashing relationship with Lewis that shines, but rather the one with her brother. The added element of romantic interest between Clark’s brother and Gawea could have been used to really develop this trio of characters, but unfortunately the plot doesn’t go this way.
Aside from a few surprises of character demises, the plot goes predictably as the group journeys westward. The ultimate arrival and showdown with the community is lackluster, devoid of weight, making the journey and what will follow in the novel’s sequel of greater import. There is a lot of build up for a simple conclusion. To prevent the novel from following the cliched fantasy journey route, Percy alternates the western journey of Meriwether and Clark’s team with a continued plot of events occurring back in St. Louis as Lancer tries to maintain control and Meriwether’s assistant and friend at the museum starts to work with a young man in pushing the city towards greater freedom and overthrowing the mayor’s ruthless control. This mixture of settings is a good thing for the novel, and though also proceeding predictably, it greatly helped the flow of the novel and helped it maintain its quality of simple entertainment, with protagonists it was easy to love and root for against the evil mayor and his sheriff.
Rather than science fiction, The Dead Lands is closer to fantasy, so don’t equate the future setting with scientific accuracy. The flu strain that played a role in the apocalypse is called H3L1 (Hell, get it?), but in reality the H and N of influenza stand for particular proteins. There is no ‘L’. The biological basis for the evolution and mutations seen in the wilds of post-nuclear America are also just absurd, playing into this novel being more like B movie entertainment than anything serious.
Finally, I really didn’t take to Percy’s style of writing. To a degree I can’t really pin down what the issue is for me, but partially I recognized that it came from his frequent uses of nouns as verbs, and similar twists of grammar that sounded odd or confused meaning. Though there is much that just didn’t sit well with me while reading this I have to admit that the adventure of the plot did make me keep reading and it became enjoyable in that way that pulp or a B movie can, so flawed that it’s mildly fun.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Grand Central Publishing via the Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.

300,000,000, by Blake Butler

300,000,000, by Blake Butler
Publisher: Harper Perennial
ISBN: 0062271857
456 pages, hardcover
Published: 14th October 2014
Source: Goodreads’ First-reads

Written in a manic stream-of-consciousness flow as diary entries from minds fractured and deranged, 3000,000,000 is at times poetic and profound, vulgar with visceral gore, illuminating, and impenetrable. The main characters are Gretch Gravey, a psychopathic mass murderer/cult leader, and Detective E.N. Flood, the officer tasked with combing over Garvey’s rambling writings and testimonies to penetrate the meaning behind his horrific crimes.
As Flood struggles to understand the insanity of Gravey and his alter-egos his colleagues (and the reader) begins to witness Flood’s own life and mind descend into a similar vortex of madness where rational sentences devolve into surreal images of raw contrasting emotions. Reality and imagination in the minds of the protagonists blur, as do the lines between the plot and the social commentary of 300,000,000 on the fabric of America.
I try to avoid statements such as this, but this novel if any will hold to that idea that most people will either love or hate Butler’s novel. The near incomprehensibility of much of the text, read more for the poetry, frantic cadence, and general feeling of unease that it elicits will not be for everyone. At times I found it fascinating, but as the novel wore on I became increasingly bored and uninterested, dulled to the violence and disturbing heart of it all, which perhaps is an effect and commentary Butler desired to convey to some degree.
Just as Flood becomes affected by the crazed mind of Gravey, so too does the reader. The effect is chilling. In moments where I spent time focused on the novel, and in the dark quiet of the night, my mind tried to construct some logic around the surreal, and began to feel a growing sense of paranoia and discomfort. Butler succeeds well at making this truly creepy for the reader able to immerse into the pages of 300,000,000, particularly in the start of the book. I also appreciated how the horrific depravity and bloodbath behind the minimal plot of the novel seems at times supernatural in nature, yet also reads like that would be a cop-out, denying the utter evil capable by humanity itself.
Eventually, however, the novelty of that experience became old, the effects dulled. After a certain number of times reading dehumanizing words like ‘flesh’ and ‘meat’ to describe people loses its effect. The fragmentation of characters and the unreliability of who is ‘real’ and who is a fragment of Flood’s imagination start to become repetitive and the social commentary on America grows a bit too literal perhaps. A little over halfway through the novel I was ready for it to end. The remainder just reinforced responses I’d already had and there isn’t enough of a ‘plot’ here to really make the latter portions of the thick novel fulfilling from the angle of story.
Readers who really enjoy surreal, bizarro fiction will find this worth checking out, but this is certainly not for those who want a more traditional kind of novel or those put off by disturbing horrors. While I remained welcome to it, the experimental nature of the novel wore thin on me. Finally finishing it I felt far more displeased and unsatisfied than I feel now with the passage of some time. Butler’s 300,000,000 is certainly unforgettable.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from the publisher via Goodreads’ First-reads giveaway program in exchange for an honest review.