Saturday, August 23, 2014

The Saturday Review: Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone

You know which Mission Impossible movie is my favorite? (Trust me, this is relevant.) The first one. Before they got too action-oriented and just plain ridiculous (though the 4th one was enjoyable), there was the first one, that, if you were paying attention, dropped little bread crumbs along the way. Three Parts Dead by Max Gladstone is like that, only without the part where Tom Cruise rips off his face.

(This book has zero face-ripping, in case you were looking for that sort of thing.)

This is the first book in what is now part of a trilogy, and as the third one is out - or due soon - it seemed like a good time to write the first one up. Gladstone's created a brand new world here, with it's own mythology and blend of fantasy and science fiction and even a little steampunk, and though there isn't a lot of the usual world-building that would go into a more traditional sci-fi treatment of the piece, there's enough there so the reader doesn't get lost wandering in and out of both the alleyways and the politics of this new world. Part of me wishes there had been a little more, as there's clearly a class divide at work in this world, and an even greater divide between the cities that run on magic and the outer areas that don't, and that's mostly left unexplored other than the bits the reader is introduced to as character development. Perhaps that's what the sequels will help do.

As for this one, there's a murder mystery of sorts at the heart of this story. Civilization is built around various gods, each one providing the life-force - or just the utilities - that keep their individual cities going. One of those gods has been killed, and it's up to a young lawyer/witch to help her boss figure out who and why. The novel does a great job of blending the legal aspects of having a city and a world that runs a lot on magic with the more down to earth practicalities off it. A great deal of thought went into how it all works, and though a legal drama might not sound like the best thing to blend magic and science with, it works very well. Even when the scene shifts into a courtroom, in a scenario that, minus the trappings, would be at home in a John Grisham novel, it never loses it's sense of action.

There's also some philosophical/theological explorations here, which is fitting when the other main character is a priest whose job it was to watch over the god, and who therefore has a vested interest in solving the mystery. Again, like the courtroom material, what could have been a heavy-handed or even boring exploration of these weightier issues is deftly woven within the action of the main story, and never feels out of place or makes the story slow down.

The characters were well-thought out, the machinations of all involved sufficiently complex without being overwhelming, and the world just gritty enough to feel lived-in yet still retaining its sense of being something new. A blend of Grisham and perhaps Mieville, with just a dash of Gaiman around the edges, this is a world well worth taking the time to explore.

As for that Mission Impossible thing? If you're paying attention, Gladstone drops clues as to the ultimate reveal, like any good mystery writer does. Some of them you may not catch until the end, but they are they throughout and they make for a satisfying puzzle. While you can't solve everything from the clues, there's a big part of the mystery that's waiting for you to figure it out.

Only without the face-ripping.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

A Tale of Two Reactions

I've been trying to decide whether to write this one for a while, so as a consequence of that this isn't very timely, except for one particularly relevant detail. And although I am not going to speak to specifics, please note that this will deal with the issue of abuse, and the public consequences of that within the broader community (in this case the writing/artistic and film communities). So if that's going to be a thing for you, come back next week. It'll be less serious here, I swear.

Or read another post. There's lots here, even if there hasn't been much here recently.

For those of you who are still with me, Woody Allen has a new film out. It's not made a big splash, so I'm assuming the critics aren't raving over it, but still, Woody Allen has a new film out. And I'm not quite sure how that happens.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying I don't understand the Hollywood process, because I do. I just don't understand how people still work with Woody Allen. The sexual abuse allegations that have come out against him are so quickly dismissed, so quickly tossed aside and ridiculed, you'd think there was concrete proof the allegations were false. Now, I understand how the presumption of guilt works, and I understand Allen claims it never happened. I also understand how quick the Hollywood community is to accept excuses, blame the victim, and express sympathy for the person who may very well have molested a 7 year-old girl. (Not just in Hollywood, either. I'll get to that in a moment.)

Maybe it's because I know enough about accusations of abuse, and counter-accusations of false-allegations, to understand how underreported the former are, and over-estimated the latter are. Or because I understand how hard it is to come forward, how difficult it can be to say what happened, even when the immediate consequences don't include a national spotlight. Or because I understand that it's easier to make excuses for an "artist" everyone admires than it is to wrestle with the uncomfortable truths and the consequences therein.

And yet, as a counter-example, there is Marion Zimmer Bradley. The woman is dead. She is no longer writing books. There is no worry that buying one of her books will, in any way, express support for what she did. Even so, when the allegations about the abuse she perpetrated came out, I watched the entire SFF community struggle with what to do. I watched friends decided whether they would keep her books on their shelves, simply because of what they now know. Books that were already bought, by an author who is already dead. By and large, the voices I respect in the SFF community all seemed to come to the consensus that, keep them or toss them, a conversation needed to be had. Not about whether the accusations were false, not about the reputations of those involved, but about the fact that it happened in the first place, and is in all likelihood still happening somewhere.

None of which I have seen regarding Mr Allen, who is still making films, still making money, still revered.

Why the different reactions? Does this mean the SFF community is better than Hollywood? (Possibly, but I'd argue that anyway.) Does it mean we're only comfortable accepting horrible truths when they impact people who are already dead, so we don't have to make hard choices? Does it matter that one of them is a well-known director and writer, and the other a name largely unknown outside a certain community? I certainly didn't see Stephen King writing an opinion that any of the accusations against Bradley were because the accuser was being "bitchy."

[I can forgive King, to a point, because people are allowed to be assholes. They are allowed to be jerks. They are allowed to take the more comfortable route out of a tricky situation. It does not make them good people, and while I will continue to read King (there's a review of Joyland sitting in the queue here), I do think less of him. Pretty sure that doesn't matter to him.]

Maybe some of this just comes down to separating the art from the artist. Lots of artists, in lots of fields, were less than stellar human beings. No questions there. But what happens when those lesser qualities are revealed and the artist is still putting work out? I'm pretty sure Woody Allen does not need the money, but even so, maybe if people stopped going to his films, stopped accepting parts in his films, stopped, in general, saying "it doesn't matter, it's not worth really looking into" in actions if not in words, maybe that would matter a little. Maybe not, but maybe we'd sleep a little less troubled for not having given Mr Allen whatever percentage of our money he gets from ticket sales.

So... Woody Allen has a new film out. I'd say I'm not going to see it, but honestly I've never understood the appeal of Woody Allen, anyway. I don't like his films, so there's no choice for me. I don't read Bradley, either, so that's an easy choice, too, even if the woman is dead. I'd like to believe that, had she not died, her career would have been over this year, and that would have been the end of it. But maybe not. Maybe when you're famous and popular, it's easier to overlook the allegations, easier to sweep it under the rug, and just proceed as usual.

Of course it is.

But maybe that should also be a reason to have a harder conversation.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

The Saturday Review: Deeply Odd

I think this is the second book of Koontz's I've reviewed here this year. (Well, maybe this year. I know it's been ... a while... since I've been regular here. ... Do they make an equivalent of writerly prune juice to keep the ideas flowing? Only that leads to an easy and uncomfortable metaphor, doesn't it? Never mind on that one.) This one is going to go much the way of that last one, and if you'd rather not sort through the rest of this, here's the final verdict up front: meh.

That's an official "meh" as in: I didn't quit half-way through but seriously, seriously thought about it and only really finished it because I was sufficiently mildly interested in how the train wreck would resolve itself. I gave it three stars on Goodreads only because they don't have a half-star system, and two seemed a little too harsh.

This is a "read if you've got nothing else better on your TBR list or there's nothing better in the library. Or on TV." I mean that. There's better storytelling on television. Even on the networks.

As for the details...

When I started thinking about how to best summarize my feelings on this, I was going to devise a "Deeply Odd Drinking Game." Only I realized it would more likely be the "Deeply Odd Sure-fire Path to Alcohol Poisoning" which doesn't really sound like anybody's idea of a game. Least no one I want to go drinking with, at any rate. So, instead, I've devised a game we'll call "Spot the Plot." Here's how you play. Open the book, anywhere, at random. Read a paragraph. Does it have anything to do with the plot?

Odds are, no. (Pun not intentional.)

Try again.

Odds are, the next one won't, either.

As you could be at this a while, let me tell you what you will find, in no particular order:

Odd reminisces about his dead girlfriend

Odd tells someone to call him "Odd" - and the they don't. Or vice versa as in someone tells Odd to call them "X" and he insists on saying "Mr X" or "Mrs X" or some such.

Odd ruminates on the nature of evil and evil people, which, frankly, he does so often I figure he's got more stomachs than a cow.

Someone tells Odd how special he is, how much he's going to do. Bonus points for it being random characters who more or less exist in the book solely to tell Odd how special he is.

Odd then goes "gee aw shucks." (This is a separate point because he does this a bit.)

While I normally write spoiler-free (as much as possible) reviews of the things I read, please be aware I have now spoiled half the book for you.

Yes, half. I wish I was making that up.

Koontz is one of those authors who is largely hit or miss for me. Either I really like the book, or I don't, and the reasons why I don't have become somewhat predictable over his long and very prolific career. I have thought, in the past, that some of his prolificness may be what hurts certain books, and why, in more recent years, he's become a bit more miss for me than hit. I've learned to read the book jackets, anticipate the plot, and know beforehand whether I want to give it a go. Occasionally I'm wrong - his "Shadow Street" book fell flat for me despite my hopes - and so far the Odd series had avoided Koontz's more problematic pitfalls.

This one, by contrast, was a study in them. (The only thing it was missing was a dog. I mean, there was a dog, of course there was, but it was a much less precious and precocious pooch than the usual canines that show up in Koontz's books. Oh, and the precocious "special" child was missing from this one. Sort of.) I figure there was only about enough plot in this, as written, to sustain half the total pages. This could have been a novella, and a much more satisfying one than it was as a novel. Moreover, although the series is clearly building on things, you could easily skip this one, as now doubt all the things you really need to know will be gone over in great depth and far too much detail in the next installment. Or, better yet, they won't be, and this little escapade in Odd's tales will be written off as a bad dream.

I'm really hoping this doesn't mark a turning point for the series, though I have reasons to fear it does. I started off liking Koontz's Frankenstein series, though that series went off the rails much, much faster. The first book held so much great promise, and the second one mostly spent its time breaking that promise by partially or wholly abandoning most of the premises that made the first one so good. (And by slipping into the standard Koontz cliches. Though I think it avoided the dog, there was the child.) By the end of the Frankenstein books I was so thoroughly unimpressed that I read them mostly for completion's sake.

If the Odd series keeps going the way of this book, I may not be able to even muster that much effort.