THE GRACEKEEPERS by Kirsty Logan

Yesterday, my latest review for Strange Horizons was published as part of their ‘Our Queer Planet’ summer special, highlighting international, queer, and fantastic writing. The novel I reviewed: The Gracekeepers by Kirsty Logan from Crown Publishers.

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“…Expanded from a component in Logan’s collection The Rental Heart and Other Fairytales (2014), her debut novel contains a minimal, slow-building plot. But it is full of sensual prose that overlays a core of rich characters, a corporeal yet deeply intellectual feminism, and an overarching theme of transcendence….” Read the entire review on Skiffy & Fanty here.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this novel from the publisher through the Crown Blogging for Books program in exchange for an honest review.

THE EUTHANIST, by Alex Dolan

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The Euthanist
By Alex Dolan
Diversion Books – 2nd June 2015
ISBN 9781626815490 – 315 Pages – Paperback
Source: NetGalley


Do people have the right to die when their lives approach their end filled with unbearable pain? Is it murder to assist them? Conversely, do remorseless, monstrous criminals deserve death? Should they be inflicted with pain as punishment for the worst of human crimes? Is torture justified to gain answers to save the innocent?
These are the kinds of questions at the heart of Dolan’s debut novel, The Euthanist. Kali is the pseudonym chosen by an EMT who has taken up the off-hours job of assisted suicide under the umbrella of a clandestine right-to-die movement. She meets the illegality and moral grayness of her occupation by adhering to a strict code that includes a long process of meeting with clients, ensuring this is a well-considered decision and that their terminal disease is indeed certain and without hope.
Slight laxness in her process traps Kali in a situation gone horribly awry when a supposed client slaps her in cuffs and announces that he is an undercover FBI agent. Kali finds this hard to believe with his odd behavior as rather than arresting and bringing her in, he holds her captive and begins probing into her identity and psychological rationalizations for her actions. Kali soon learns that this FBI agent is not just looking to capture her, but to blackmail her into helping in his own mysterious goals towards revenge against the people responsible for kidnapping his son.
As a thriller and mystery, The Euthanist stands fairly well. The plot takes several twists and turns, and if you don’t know much of the plot going into it things will likely proceed in many ways you didn’t expect. Those big moral questions at the heart of the plot are also fascinating, making the premise of Dolan’s novel at first very captivating.
Unfortunately I felt that Dolan didn’t explore the various moral quandaries fully as the novel progressed and the action of the plot began to thicken. The debates over these questions don’t necessarily have a clear-cut answer, and the characters themselves don’t even need to come to any firm conclusions. But within the overall arc of the story, their are firm beliefs at the start, a lot of complexity enters in, and that complexity doesn’t really go. I never got the sense of the characters coming to any sort of solid ground by the end, particularly problematic with Kali, who in general comes across as a very indecisive person.
That characterization by far though was my greatest difficulty with The Euthanist. I had an incredibly hard time buying the things that the FBI agent put Kali through, particularly given the similarities to what the agent’s son went through. His vision seems incredibly narrowed, and that vision primarily is simply allowing the author’s plot to unfold. It thus ends up feeling unnatural, authorial design. Meanwhile Kali, a supposedly strong-willed protagonist battling her own demons of the past, comes across as remarkably ineffective in most situations at asserting herself, at maintaining control over her decisions. She allows the FBI agent to control her actions, and eventually begin to guide her thoughts, in ways that I found hard to swallow.
These problems with The Euthanist made it ultimately a disappointing read for me, but it still clearly has its merits. Other aspects of writing Dolan has down very well, from atmosphere and tone, to sharp dialogue, and a thrilling plot based on great moral questions. Thriller fans may still consider it worth a look, particularly if passionate about euthanasia or punishment against perpetrators of crimes against children. Reading the first handfuls of chapters of the novel should give a reader a fair sense of whether they will enjoy the remainder.

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

Last Stories and Other Stories, by William T. Vollmann

Last Stories and Other Stories,
by William T. Vollmann
Publisher: Viking
ASIN: B00G3L0ZV4
692 pages, eBook
Published 10th July 2014
Source: NetGalley

Contents:
I –
“Escape” (Sarajevo)
“Listening for the Shells” (Sarajevo)
“Leader” (Mostar)
II – 
“The Treasure of Jovo Cirtovich” (Trieste)
“The Madonna’s Forehead” (Trieste)
“Cat Goddess” (Trieste)
“The Trench Ghost” (Redipuglia, Tungesnes)
III –
“The Faithful Wife” (Bohemia and Trieste)
“Doroteja” (Bohemia)
“The Judge’s Promise” (Bohemia)
IV –
“June Eighteenth” (Trieste and Queretaro)
“The Cemetery of the World” (Veracruz)
“Two Kings in Zinogava” (Veracruz)
V –
“The White-Armed Lady” (Stavanger)
“Where Your Treasure Is” (Stavanger, Lillehammer)
“The Memory Stone” (Stavanger)
“The Narrow Passage” (Stavanger)
“The Queen’s Grave” (Klepp)
“Star of Norway” (Lillehammer)
VI – 
“The Forgetful Ghost (Tokyo)
“The Ghost of Rainy Mountain” (Nikko)
“The Camera Ghost” (Tokyo)
“The Cherry Tree Ghost” (Kyoto, Nikko)
“Paper Ghosts” (Tokyo)
VII –
“Defiance Too Late” (Unknown)
“Widow’s Weeds” (Kauai, Paris)
“The Banquet of Death” (Buenos Aires)
“The Grave-House” (Unknown)
(Unknown)
(Toronto)
“When We Were Seventeen” (USA)
“The Answer” (Unknown)
“Goodbye” (Kamakura)

 If this Halloween you are looking for a new and unique type of ghost story, and if literary fiction akin to a dry red wine is your treat of choice, then Vollmann’s gigantic new collection Last Stories and Other Stories may be just the thing for you.
Each of the seven parts of this collection is made up of multiple, connected stories. Varying in setting and time, the parts are linked together both in style and theme. From the war-ravaged years in the former Yugoslavia, to the romantically haunting mountains of Japan, to the memories of a dying man, Vollmann’s stories are preoccupied with all aspects of death. Drawing on regional legend, many of these stories contain elements of fantasy and horror, but in each case to service the literary meditation on the passing of people and things, not simply for the advancement of some plot. Sometimes the ghosts are literal, sometimes they appear more figuratively. Throughout, they are rendered with some delightfully beautiful prose.
Vollmann’s collection stands as a comprehensive and meticulous literary study on “Last Stories”. The stories here confront death at the moment of its personal arrival or its expected visitation on a beloved one, in the last gasps of a people or in an existence that is only defined in memory. Though written with very similar style and voice, the variety of international and historical setting allows the reader to glimpse the human understanding of death through the lens of multiple traditions and myth.
The downside to Last Stories and Other Stories is just how comprehensive it is: it’s density and its girth. At close to 700 pages, this collection could easily contain multiple single collections. In fact, each part could stand on its own. The first parts are the most grounded in realism, and given the book’s description of being about ‘ghost stories’ I was surprised to find this a huge stretch of interpretation until hundreds of pages in when that element finally arose as one aspect of the collection’s theme. Echoing the size of the book, many of the stories are particularly long, and Vollmann’s style of storytelling tends toward the rambling. The language may be beautiful throughout, but it is still rambling.
I personally found Last Stories and Other Stories most effective in small doses, rather than in reading cover-to-cover. These tales are filled with particularly insightful and lush reflections on the grave. But there is only so much of the rich text that I could handle before it simply became daunting in its scope and frustrating in its pace.
If you are a fan of highbrow literary fiction, and particularly if you would like a slight dose of the supernatural or grim for the season, then this is a quite brilliant collection that should be checked out. I’ll return to it again just for the sake of studying its language, but only in small doses at a time. You may wish to approach it similarly.

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

The Waking Engine, by David Edison

The Waking Engine, by David Edison
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 0765334860
400 pages, hardcover
Published February 2014
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

Any fan of the fantasy/sci fi genre should take note of this highly inventive debut novel, and any fiction reader should pay attention to Edison’s future output. While there are some basic problems with the novel, its numerous strengths outweigh them, most particularly the obvious talent Edison has for the writing craft. With greater experience and perhaps a bit less ambition than displayed in this novel, Edison could be a powerhouse.

“The Waking Engine” probably falls closest within the category of ‘urban fantasy’, but it is truly a mix of multiple genres. This blending of disparate elements becomes the defining aspect of the work, from its influences, its structure, its writing, its plot, etc. Remarkably, most of these pieces end up working when put together.

The strongest accomplishment (as appears universally acknowledged by both those that liked the book or not) is the world building. I am not convinced that the universe of “The Waking Engine” is wholly original in its ingredients – they are mined from a host of archetypic stories – but Edison certainly molds these into something his own. Decent fantasy world building is not particularly unique, but what Edison does excel at is the revelation of this world to the reader. The reveal is gradual, full of mystery, and thereby very captivating. It almost invites the reader to shout out questions as they try to gain footing in the uncertainty, bizarreness, and confusion. Tying the protagonists discoveries to the revelation for the reader helps make him relatable and helps drive the plot forward. For me the experience of reading “Waking Engine”, particularly the beginning, reminded me of playing the game “Planescape: Torment”, where the character you play in the game awakens from death in a strange world with no memory of how he got there or who he was. Though the protagonist in this novel does have memories, the experiences of waking to something unfathomable and strange is alike. You the reader/player discover this world as he ventures out into it.

The second accomplishment of Edison in this novel is his prose. It is rich and poetic, utilizing a very precise vocabulary to render visualization to the strange environment of the city and its abnormal denizens. The language he uses is wonderful at rendering mood, and in this way certain parts of the novel have an almost gothic feel to them, particularly in those moments most dark. There is also a literary depth to the writing. Beyond starting each chapter with false quotes from famous (now deceased) people, “The Waking Engine” is full of references literary, historic, and philosophic. There is meat on the bones of this novel, and Edison gets his ideas across really well. Finally, Edison successful writes in the exposition necessary for revealing this strange world to the reader and protagonist. Information flows naturally and rarely feels forced.

Despite these huge strengths there are some issues that arise from the sheer ambition of this novel. For one that characterization is not as developed as one might hope. Secondary characters are actually quite rich, inventive, and in several cases (particularly the villains) simply wondrous. This actually ends up making the protagonist feel rather hollow. An everyday Joe, yet seemingly unique in this universe, he never stands out as someone you are fully invested in, or really know. Little is brought up regarding his past, and the majority of the present is mainly about him trying to figure out what the hell is going on for him to worry beyond that question. If it weren’t for the link to him in the form of world building revelations, this would have been a major problem.

The second problem comes from the sheer wildness of the plot and its plethora of characters. The pacing of the plot and the handling of its many threads becomes messy, and the extreme invention of the novel’s set up makes the ultimate climax pale strongly in comparison. In addition to the protagonist, other secondary characters begin to rise in prominence and import and thus in focus, which ends up compounding the lack of depth in the protagonist.

By the end of “The Waking Engine” I had the sense that I had gone through a crazy and thought-provoking ride with plenty of memorable moments, but felt underwhelmed by the actual story at its heart and relatively pedestrian ending. Being a debut novel with such high aspirations and a tone of confident freshness it isn’t surprising that some elements just fail to come together, and thankfully those don’t ruin the novel as a whole for me or negate the obvious talents that Edison has to develop.

Four Stars out of Five

Nightmare City, by Andrew Klavan

Nightmare City, by Andrew Klavan
Publisher: Thomas Nelson Publishers
ISBN: 1595547975
311 pages, hardcover
Published November 2013
Source: Goodreads First-Reads

This is the first book by Klavan that I’ve read, but I was intrigued by the information about this book’s plot and the reception of others to his previous novels. This one turned out to be a disappointment however, which is a particular shame in that due to shipping problems I ended up with two copies (one I passed on to a friend), and the publishers were very kind about this. I hope others enjoy these copies as I pass them on at least.

Nightmare City suggests to me that Klavan can write really well, but it just seems lazy here in terms of plotting and development. Although the main character, Tom, is compelling, the others are all flat and the story is too straightforward, remarkably predictable. The first half of the novel consists of Tom wandering around in a literal fog, trying to figure out the situation he is in, with moments of filling in backstory or him being ‘threatened’ by so called ‘malevolents’. We are told how awful these creatures are, but never get much more than a vague sense of what they are or the danger they supposedly present. I say ‘supposedly’ because many a chapter seemed to end with Tom in dire straights only to start the next chapter with him ‘waking’ anew in a new situation, apparently safe and fine. As such, after awhile these ‘malevolent’ threats start to lose their effect.

Repetition of themes also occurs throughout the novel, such as truth and the search for it. To Klavan’s credit the theme doesn’t get too preachy or too beholden to any particular religion until the tail-end of the story with a few too-sappy moments where the protagonist is urged to keep on living because of Christ’s sacrifice. Which is kind of an odd theological view in itself.

The ideas and themes here are straightforward thus too, but they are also simplistic, and not particularly realistic or helpful for a young person as presented in the absolute sort of world “Nightmare City” exists within. Moreover, at no time does Tom actually remind of any teen I have ever known. Some questions at the end of the book could help getting someone to think a little more deeply about the issues Klavan raises through his story, one only wishes there were a bit more complexity in addressing those same issues in the story itself rather than simply following the obvious paths.

One Star out of Five