HALF A WAR by Joe Abercrombie

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Half a War
(Shattered Sea #3)
By Joe Abercrombie
Del Rey – July 2015
ISBN 9780804178457 – 362 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


The conclusion to Abercrombie’s Shattered Sea fantasy trilogy, Half a War follows a story begun in Half a King (which I reviewed here) and continued in Half the World. The first book introduced Yarvi, a prince born with a crippled hand, who events pull unwillingly onto the throne amid a storm of interstate intrigue that leads to his removal from royal obligations and into literal captivity.
If you haven’t yet read the previous books in this series I recommend that you do. Half a War is an excellent conclusion to an impressive and deceptively simple series. Starting as something classifiable as YA fiction, and filled with a sense of some brightness and hope, the series progresses into greater complexity. Characters increasingly, and more easily make moral compromises for ‘the greater good’, or prove incapable of the heroism that their world – and perhaps the reader – expects of them. By this third book the series approaches closer to fitting Abercrombie’s Twitter handle, LordGrimdark. Not as extreme as some epic fantasy may get, Shattered Sea does pass beyond what I would consider a tone for YA. The sense of hope for a better world, of pursuing any pureness of character falls into decay, leaving settlements with options that are less bad, and acceptance of personal imperfections within a broken, harsh world.
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The series thus has a gritty realism that should be familiar to anyone paying attention to the politics of 2016, in the United States, Britain, or beyond. The strengths of this series of fantasy novels from Abercrombie is the detached, authentic way he deals with characters, allowing them to make immense sacrifices in this story of their lives (particularly Yarvi’s in the full scope). There is little complexity to the plots or the overall goals of the characters. But how are they going to get from A to B? How they are going to rationalize the best path? And what must they allow, or do to themselves and one another, for the betterment of the people they are responsible for? What does success look like? What does failure? And does something lie in between those two outcomes? These are the questions that the Shattered Sea series is concerned with.
In wrapping up the series Half a War focuses fairly equally between the different protagonists: Yarvi who was the focus of the first book, Thorn who was the focus (with Brand) of the second book, and Princess Skara now added as a major component of this third book. Although the series as a whole is clearly Yarvi’s story – and oh what development he goes through! – introductions of each other protagonist never felt disappointing for long to this reader. I didn’t mind pulling away from direct points of view through Yarvi because those providing the new points of view were just as compelling. Secondary characters were equally brilliant, despite their faults, compromises, or failures.
For any fans of fantasy with a ‘classical’ feel, but modern sensibilities, or those looking for complexity and tones of realistic darkness/despair without fully going down a ‘Red Wedding’ sort of route, this series should appeal. If you’ve already read Half a King, but not the others, you really should discover where Yarvi’s journey, his service to his kingdom and its people, take him and those he uses.

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

SMALLER AND SMALLER CIRCLES by F.H. Batacan

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Smaller and Smaller Circles
By F.H. Batacan
Soho Press – August 2015
ISBN 9781616953980 – 368 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads First Reads


 Set in the slums of Payatas, just outside Quezon City of the Manila metro area, Batacan’s Smaller and Smaller Circles is a bit of a contradiction. On the one hand it is rather unique: a crime procedural novel written by a Filipino author with a plot steeped in local politics and culture, and featuring two Jesuit priests committed to identifying a serial killer preying on the indigent tween boys living amid the neighborhood trash warrens. However on the other hand the novel is exceptionally ordinary: routine in its text and familiar in its protagonists, antagonist, and suspense despite the unique setting and perspective.
 As a respected forensic anthropologist, Father Gus Saenz serves as an asset for the National Bureau of Investigations, particularly surrounded by the corruption of local police and his personal connection as priest to a flock living in abject squalor. Together with his psychologist protégé, Father Jerome Lucero, Father Saenz begins to investigate the appearance of eviscerated young local boys, seeking an end to the horrible crimes of an apparent serial killer and justice for the victims, vulnerable members of humanity that their society would rather ignore.
 Most significantly, I found descriptions of local atmosphere lacking in Batacan’s writing. Though descriptive passages are present, the large chunk of Smaller and Smaller Circles consists of dialogue and stage direction. This is typical in crime novels, but unlike something like Hammett, Batacan’s dialogue and focus on the mundane seems remarkably tedious. To be fair, other readers may see this type of realism to be refreshing, and it may draw them into the story more than it did in my case. Given the expectations I had in viewing this book as a rare Filipino literary take on the crime genre, I was left wanting much more.
 More about the procedure of investigation, the novel can’t really be described as a mystery, as the identity of the killer is not something the reader could arrive at. Yet, there is the element of discovering the killer’s motivations behind the gruesome murders. Again, as with the sociopolitical commentary provided by the setting, the psychology and past of the killer is an aspect to Smaller and Smaller Circles that holds so much untapped potential. Just as Batacan doesn’t pursue the politics of her novel to much depth, so too is the serial killer’s psyche not fully explored. Moreover the ‘reasons’ for the killer’s impulse never believably syncs (in my mind) with the details of the murderous acts.

Identification of the serial killer and the ultimate conclusion to capture them proceed with little twist or surprise, and the reader will likely realize how the killer gains access to victims before the Jesuit pair. This slow predictable plod to resolution, coupled with the unremarkable dialogue, made this hard to get into. Certainly not badly written, fans of police procedurals may still find something to enjoy in this novel, particularly if they appreciate the genre familiarity within a slightly unfamiliar setting. Plenty of readers have connected with Smaller and Smaller Circles, and depending on your interests/expectations you might too. But my expectations for something really new and different were unfulfilled.

In an odd convergence this is actually one of two crime novels I’ve just read featuring Jesuits and an ‘exotic’ locale (compared to those in typical crime novels published in the US). The other succeeds far stronger, so look for its review coming soon.

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

THE INSECT FARM, by Stuart Prebble

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The Insect Farm
By Stuart Prebble
Mulholland Books – 7th July 2015
ISBN 9780316337366 – 320 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads’ First-Reads


A foul odor is noticeably growing, emanating from a shed and attracting the attention and concern of neighbors. The police are called in. Within they discover an elaborate insect farm and the remains of two people, picked to the bones.
So begins Stuart Prebble’s The Insect Farm, the English author’s first novel published in the US. After the grisly discoveries of the novel’s prologue, the story begins from the point of view of elderly Jonathan Maguire: an everyday, normal kind of fellow who is writing down past recollections of his family and life. Jonathan hints at some significant event compelling him to relate this past, an event – figures the reader – related to the mysterious bodies discovered in the prologue.
 For all his his life, Jonathan has been close to his older brother Roger. Loving and protective of one another, the Maguire brothers have a normal childhood. But as Jonathan begins to grow into young adulthood, he begins to notice that Roger’s mind has remained in adolescence. Roger’s mental disabilities and related social insufficiencies leave him in a relatively simple, but happy, life of reliance on his brother and their parents. While Jonathan starts to get an interest in girls, Roger develops an interest in insects, starting an insect farm in the yard shed as a hobby.
As Jonathan begins to focus more on his studies and a relationship with his attractive girlfriend Harriet, circumstances force him into greater responsibility for caring for Roger, whose insect farm has grown into a beloved obsession. But Jonathan’s commitment to caring for Roger limits the time he has with his now-wife Harriet, the only woman in a small musical ensemble that works long-distance. Only seeing Harriet during the weekends, Jonathan lives in constant jealousy that his stunning bride is away with a bunch of other men, one of whom makes no secret of his desires for Harriet.
Two brothers with different sorts of obsessions and dependencies: one with mental/social defects and eccentricities the other with near-stifling responsibility and pangs of resentment. A wife away with a man who fancies her. One can imagine that things can go wrong with such tension. But what will happen exactly? And which of these characters correspond to the two skeletons that end up with the insects in the shed?
There lies the mystery and suspense of The Insect Farm. It’s important to stress to potential readers that these genre tensions do not form the bulk of the story. Prebble’s novel is somewhat hard to characterize and it is easy to go into this expecting one type of story only to be disappointed that you’re getting something else. This isn’t a thriller with some cat-and-mouse chase toward discovery of identities. It isn’t about fulfillment of justice for a crime. The resolution to the prologue of The Insect Farm will not be revealed until the reader completes the last page, and there will be some surprise twists right before the final, appropriately subtle, one.
But it takes a lot of text to get to this point of revelation. The majority of that text (3/4 of the novel roughly) is taken up with the rather everyday family drama of the characters. It thus more closely resembles a contemporary ‘literary’ piece of fiction than something from the mystery or thriller genre. At it’s heart, it may be more aptly described as psychological suspense, heavy on the psychology. The psychology of the Maguire brothers is the meat of The Insect Farm, most particularly that of the point-of-view narrator Jonathan. And Jonathan is not a particularly likable person. I have no issues with needing characters in fiction to be likable, but I know some readers do. For me, this is what makes The Insect Farm an actually interesting piece of fiction.  To what degree is Jonathan selfish? How honest is his devotion to his brother? How alike are these two brothers? Does Roger have greater understanding and capability than one might at first think? What moral culpability does Roger have for social transgressions given his mental development?
The characters here – including Harriet – may not be likable, but they are interesting. They are people whose motivations aren’t always clear-cut, but they do have them. These complex motivations, and the psychology of characters’ decisions are the elements a reader can focus on here, forming questions and opinions that can be debated with other readers. People who appreciate this type of thing will find a lot to love in Prebble’s novel. But if you don’t want to get into the character’s minds – or don’t care to – then you will likely get rapidly bored as a seemingly normal mix of human dysfunction ‘drags on’ until finally turning to crisis and fall-out management in the last quarter of the book. For me, the character details that lead up to that end point were largely worth reading.

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.

THE EDGE OF NORMAL, by Carla Norton

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The Edge of Normal
(Reeve LeClaire Series #1)
By Carla Norton
Minotaur Books – 30th September 2014
ISBN 9781250032775 – 384 Pages – Paperback
Source: Goodreads


If I would have had the fortitude, I would have gone through all the pages of Norton’s debut thriller in one night’s sitting. Alas, sleep beckoned and I had to settle for devouring it in thirds. The Edge of Normal is a remarkably tense novel with excellent pacing, a disturbingly twisted predator threat, and an inspiring formal victim protagonist. Because of its subject matter a warning of trigger factors for potential readers is needed up front. In Norton’s own words:
“The main character’s scars speak to what she has suffered, but the abuse is never described in detail. There are brief scenes of girls being held captive, but without anyone else in the room. Most of the suspense comes from the dread of what might happen next, and what the criminal plans to do. Several reviews have mentioned that I’ve handled a difficult subject without sensationalism.”
— Carla Norton in response to a question posted on Goodreads
The novel features a sexual predator who kidnaps and holds young girls captive for his own deviant desires. Diabolically this very real horror exists to inspire the plot of the novel, but it is important to reaffirm here that Norton handles the horrors with a commendable balance of honesty without sensationalism or exploitation. At heart the novel comes down to more than the evil deeds. Its plot is ultimately concerned not with who is committing the deeds, but to how they can be stopped. And the predominant theme focuses on the possibility of recovery and healing.
Reeve LeClaire is a young woman in her twenties who is trying to adapt to a life of normalcy ten years following her fortunate escape from a four-year captivity by a sexual predator who kidnapped her. With the support of her family and the capable professional care of psychiatrist Dr. Lerner, Reeve has slowly made significant steps of recovery, despite still bearing significant scars both physical and mental. Reeve now answers a call from Dr. Lerner to take a further step in her healing. The parents of a young girl named Tilly who has just been saved from a captivity resembling Reeve’s have asked for Reeve to help mentor and guide Tilly through the jarring first days of her restored freedom, her presumed safety back at home.
Though Tilly is rescued from captivity and a confessing suspect has been captured, authorities are still concerned about a pair of girls still missing under similar circumstances, and hope that Tilly will open up to Reeve in shedding light on the remaining mystery. Reeve soon discovers that the captured abductor of Tilly merely acted under the control of someone else, someone far more powerful and devious who continues to exert powerful control over Tilly, a monstrous man who represents a threat to Tilly’s entire family and now to Reeve herself.
Norton is previously known for her works in the true crime genre of nonfiction, accounts of actual events that correspond to this fictional novel. Her subject familiarity is evident in how authentic the plot and characters of The Edge of Normal come across. Reeve’s building involvement in a criminal investigation is handled reasonably and the resolution of events through a combination of skill, persistence, and luck adds to realism overall. The villains by the nature of their crimes are very difficult to sympathize with, particularly the man in control, Duke. Yet Norton manages to give humanizing, sympathetic aspects to the other criminals, despite their monstrosity. By far Reeve is the most impressive, a complex character of both weaknesses and strengths, but certainly of resolve.
The ability of Duke to control his victims rests on his carefully structured double life and system of predatory surveillance. He has created a highly structured life for the goal of preying on others. Norton shows this in contrast to the carefully structured life of Reeve who is using the order instead to overcome her victimhood and to aid others. What is really interesting in this thriller is that a large drive in the plot involves a reversal of control, as the carefully laid plans and systems set in place by Duke are overcome and overwhelmed by the intelligence and commitment to healing (Tilly’s) that Reeve holds. Duke’s control (including of self) begins to slip and the erraticism of his psychology begins to manifest just as the erratic uncertain psychology of Reeve begins to find stability, despite the resurfacing of painful memories and monsters from her past.
The strengths of The Edge of Normal lie not just in what the novel provides with its characters, pacing, and page-turning suspense, but also in what Norton wisely chooses not to do. The critical avoidance of exploitation I already mentioned. Norton also allows Reeve to stand on her own. There are people of support and inspiration in her life, including men. Yet, at no point are these male figures the source of her rescue or salvation. Given her abusive past, Reeve understandably finds physical touch, romantic relationships – indeed any deep relationship – difficult. Her character grows in this novel, but Norton doesn’t absurdly rush Reeve ahead in anything. Reeve develops the start of a close relationship with a young male police officer in this novel – merely in that they talk honestly, a bit deeply, and there is an obvious attraction on the part of the man. But it thankfully stays at this level. There are hints to how Reeve may develop for future novels, but it is clear that much growth is still possible to provide a satisfying series.
The giveaway from Goodreads that provided me a copy of this novel from the author seems organized to coincide with the upcoming release of the second Reeve LeClaire novel, What Doesn’t Kill Her (entitled Hunted in the UK). I am hopefully getting a copy of that soon, so look for a review on that coming. Another giveaway for The Edge of Normal is now running on Goodreads, so go there to sign up if you haven’t yet read this first novel and are interested.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this from the author via the Goodreads First-Reads Giveaway Program 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.

THE HONEST FOLK OF GUADELOUPE, by Timothy Williams

20691206The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe
(Anne Marie Laveaud Mysteries #2)
By Timothy Williams
Soho Crime – 13th January 2015
ISBN 9781616953850 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


 This mystery novel, more accurately perhaps a police procedural novel with a strong sense of setting is filled with fascinating parts, but unfortunately the sum of these together doesn’t add up to much, none of them are explored to their potential.
Set in the former colony, and now département of France, Guadeloupe, this is the second book featuring character Anne Marie Laveaud, an investigating juge of French-Algerian descent. I haven’t read the first book featuring Laveaud, which I am sure covers some of the family and professional details that form a part of this book. That previous book seems unnecessary for following the plot here, or appreciating Laveaud. However reading that prior book may make some of the side plots in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe a little more complete.
In this novel, Laveaud is investigating a pair of deaths in 1990. One is a supposed suicide of a prominent businessman, a case with apparent political ties that leads Laveaud’s superiors to try and push her away from looking into it. Instead they want her to look into the other death, the murder of a young woman, a presumed white tourist, due to its potential ramifications on the tourist industry of the small islands of Guadeloupe.
The title of the novel comes from a common local saying regarding the relationship between Guadeloupe and Martinique, Guadeloupe being more rustic and ‘working class’ in a way (honest folk), compared to the fancier, more well-to-do ‘gentlemen’ of Martinique. Class differences come into play with each of the deaths that Laveaud investigates. And with the second, the murder of the young woman, issues of race and colonialism also rear their heads. As a woman born with connections to the French colony of Algeria, Laveaud is familiar with these issues, but doesn’t allow them to interfere with her simple, constant search for the truth.
Williams writing here is question-laden, as so much of the story is related, and moves forward through the simple barrage of queries to potential witnesses and sources by Laveaud. For fans of procedural detail over action or keen danger this could be welcome, but for readers who go for other types of mystery genre tales, they may find the conversation and subtleties to be dull. Most of the novel passes from conversation to conversation with brief moments of descriptive passages either highlighting local flavors of the islands, or biographical details on Laveaud.
For me the largest difficulty lies in the fact that none of the elements at play here felt fully explored, or properly linked together. I was attracted to this largely due to my interest in things French, and of French colonialism (and just generally enjoying mysteries). But the racial and colonial issues at heart here are background decor, there is not much serious reflection or exploration of the issues. When one brief incident involving a standoff and attack by a dangerous man is used to provide tension and further sociopolitical relevance, it ends up being an aside, not linked integrally with the plot.
Another element present in The Honest Folk of Guadeloupe is the family life of Laveaud, who is dealing with separation from her husband and caring for the children as a single parent, when one of them is becoming increasingly rebellious. This personal part of the plot (as well as interesting personality conflicts/rapports with colleagues) never reach any sort of conclusion, and I can only guess that they form a continuous background plot that would develop throughout multiple books of the series. Within the confines of this novel though they are unresolved and seem completely irrelevant, again an issue running parallel to the story, but not a key part of it.
Fans of police procedurals in general and those with an interest in this particular setting would find the most interest in this novel, and even then I’d only recommend delving in if open to following the entire series.

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

GOODHOUSE, by Peyton Marshall

20613821Goodhouse
By Peyton Marshall
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux – 30th September 2014
ISBN 9780374165628 – 336 Pages – Hardcover
Source: Goodreads


Though having some positive qualities to it, Marshall’s debut novel of dystopia, Goodhouse, also has it’s fair share of serious problems. Set in the near-future United States, genetic sequencing and supposed correlation between certain genetic markers and disruptive, violent behavior (deviancy from acceptable societal citizenship) lands young boys into a mandatory state-run reform school. Rather than being a place of actual growth and reform, these institutions, or Good Houses, are no more than prisons, maintaining the young boys in a wild mini-society where they are threatened by fellow ‘students’, exploited by the scientists and administrators who run the program, and targeted by a radical religious group that wants to eliminate the threat their deviancy represents.
Readers are introduced to this horrific world through the eyes of a young ward who finds himself increasingly at the mercy of the system and its punishments despite his best efforts to actually reform from the person he is condemned for being. Yet he soon sees that he is perhaps no different than anyone else. This protagonist, named James Goodhouse (an assigned institutional name to replace the real name and past of which he remains unaware), is a fascinating character. As a subject of lies, deceit, and experimental treatments, James is also an unreliable narrator, making many of the events in Goodhouse difficult to discern between real or imagined.
I liked this uncertain, and at times confusing, aspect of the novel, and Marshall’s writing, the language, is evocative with a dreamlike richness in spots that lends to this strange setting and the fragile state of James’ mind. Yet, while details of the plot, what was really occurring to James could be interestingly unclear, open to interpretation, the overall trajectory of the plot was basically predictable from the set up.
While on temporary release from the Goodhouse facility for a work program out in general society, James encounters a young girl who is drawn to James and the danger, deviancy that he represents. Her pursuit of him is a cause for much of James’ getting in trouble with the program, but is also the impetus for his discovering the darker truths behind the scenes. Unfortunately this relationship doesn’t end up feeling more than a plot device and as one of the few females in the novel, this girl is rather one-dimensional, seemingly just eager for a good romp with a ‘bad boy’.
The male focus of Goodhouse is generally problematic, though there aren’t any particularly likable characters in the novel at all, and none really complex beyond James. But the male focus oddly extends to the entire set up of the novel, that these genetic markers for deviancy can only be determined for men. The idea that complex behavior could be so readily mapped is kind of absurd in itself, but for it to be specific to sex chromosomes is just ridiculous. Although the entire screwed up, corrupt nature of the Goodhouse system is hard to imagine existing, the fact that these kinds of places have existed and gotten by (forming a historical basis for this novel) shows that sometimes reality is sometimes harder to bite than fiction.
The presence of the religious zealots as a secondary theme, but driving force of the plot, in Goodhouse is the other aspect where I feel the novel disappoints. The group is shown mostly as either a frenzied mob or through individuals that seem twisted and insane. They really are extreme zealots. But in so rendering they don’t seem particularly human and it instead feeds into limited, dismissive views of any similar groups in real life.
Despite not working for me on the whole, readers interested in the themes raised in the novel may find it worthwhile and Marshall’s talent at writing in general is a strength arguing for keeping an eye out for what he writes next.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Farrar, Straus, and Giroux via Goodreads’ First-Reads Giveaway Program in exchange for an honest review.