Monday, April 8, 2013

Sparkly vampires need not apply

Draculas - A Novel of Terror
Blake Crouch, Jack Kilborn, Jeff Strand, F. Paul Wilson
ePublished 2010

Reviewer: Trudi
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

Add to your Goodreads shelf
Yowza, wowzers, and woot! woot! This book -- a mad collaboration from four horror gods (small 'g') -- is this cat's meow (or as they say where I come from -- it's all that and a bag of chips).

It was going to take a lot for this book to impress me for the simple reason that vampires of late have become...meh for me. As monsters meant to inspire horror they have been done to death it seems. Not to mention they have suffered an incredible disservice in recent years both on film and in print (yeah, I'm looking at you Ms. Meyer). There just hasn't been anything really new or fresh tried either. It's either you're sparkling and pouty and misunderstood, or it's waaay back to the Stoker tradition of a debonair, aristocratic abomination that abhors garlic and crucifixes.

Don't get me wrong: I haven't always felt this disillusioned. I love 'Salem's Lot and I am Legend. I went through a huge Lestat phase in my early 20s. The Lost Boys remains one of my favorite movies of all time, and I love Steve Niles' re-imagining of vampires in his graphic novel series 30 Days of Night (the movie is pretty kick-ass too).

Despite that, I've stopped 'looking for love' with vampires. Even del Toro's The Strain underwhelmed me. So I had doubts with this one, I really did, but thanks to two awesome reviews filled with squee on goodreads I decided to throw my doubts aside and dive in.

This is about the most self-indulgent fun I've had in bleems! Draculas hits just the right note of gorror-ific combined with pee your pants scary that's doused with a gallon of can't help but giggle here even though that's beyond messed up and so wrong (I can't tell you how many times I cringed and burst out laughing at the same time). Remember the first time you ever saw The Evil Dead? Oh yeah baby, that's what I'm talking about!

The Evil Dead (1981)

So yeah, this book is tremendous fun, awesomely gory, written with a frantic energy that keeps the pages turning. Another thing worth praising is the way this novel is a completely mad mash-up of a whole bunch of horror elements; it's like the authors took vampire stories, along with zombies, werewolves and aliens, threw them into a blender and spit out this mish-mash of pure chaos and entertainment. I recognized about 100 shout-outs to other books and movies, but at the end of it all, this book stands as its own original. The authors tried things here I don't think I've seen tried anywhere else. The way the teeth are described though made me think of this from 1985's Fright Night: c'mon, gimme a kiss!

Fright Night (1985)

The ensemble cast is fun too, and added a lot to the story's enjoyment. If it weren't for such a large cast and getting to know the group -- I loved the POV change ups -- it just would have been a ho-hum affair about a bunch of lunatic infected running rabid through an enclosed space (which has been done a 1000 times). Not only do we get POV from the good guys, we get the story from the side of the infected too. I really appreciated that and the decision to do so added great entertainment value.

P.S. I paid three dollars for the ebook and there's really no way to express how much bang I got for my buck. The ebook also contains mega extras that make this title worth so much more.

This review also appears on Goodreads

The Hand That Holds the Money Cracks the Whip!

Mildred PierceMildred Pierce by James M. Cain
Dan's Rating: 3 of 5 stars

Price: 14.95
Publisher: Vintage
Available: Now

Mildred Pierce divorces her out of work, philandering husband and struggles to find a way to support herself and her two daughters. Too bad she attracts lazy scoundrels like a magnet and one of her daughters is a hellion...

Mildred Pierce is the tale of the titular character's obsessive devotion to her wicked nigh-sociopathic daughter and her wrong choices in men. Cain guides Mildred and her fabulous gams from one setback to the next, either from Veda or one of her douchebag suitors.

The writing is good though I didn't think it was as powerful as that of Double Indemnity or Postman. Still, it had its moments. My favorite quote was “The hand that holds the money cracks the whip.”

It wasn't the easiest book to read, however. I couldn't get behind any of the characters and I really wanted someone to start plotting to bump someone off. Mildred pretty much deserved all the crap that came her way, especially since she was glad Veda wasn't the child of hers that died. A lot of double crosses would have been great.

Until Mildred Pierce, I thought James M. Cain was a one trick pony. Granted, he did that one trick very well in The Postman Always Rings Twice and Double Indemnity. Mildred Pierce shows that Cain had some serious writing chops even when not writing about married women and their lovers bump off their husbands. Three stars.

Also posted on Goodreads

Chaos and Order in the mythical Old West

The Half-Made World

Felix Gilman

Tor Books

Reviewed by: Terry
4 - 4.5 out of 5 stars

Order and Chaos. The Line and the Gun. The battle between the two elemental forces of order and chaos has long been a favourite for fantasy literature and it has provided fertile ground for many tales of human society as it gets caught in the middle of these two titanic ways of viewing the universe. What better stage for displaying this great and never-ending battle than the American West? What other time period more succinctly portrays the stark differences between these two great forces? Felix Gilman has taken this stage, albeit in an alternate world that only mirrors that of our own, in order to paint in the stark blacks and whites of this endless battle. Standing in for Order and Chaos we have, as has already been mentioned, the Line and the Gun. These two great unnatural (supernatural? abnatural?) forces are presided over by demonic spirits who drive on the humans in their service in an attempt to forever destroy their opposites. The Line are housed in great Engines that control and drive their human slaves in the name of industry and progress. Their tracks criss-cross the West and lay waste to all in their path, flattening the hills and mountains and filling in the valleys to turn all into orderly, flat wastelands populated only by their great Stations and factories. The Guns take a more personal approach, inhabiting their weapons of steel and wood and brimstone and riding their bearers, shaping them into superhuman gunslingers, able to move almost faster than the eye can follow and heal from grievous wounds in mere moments.

The alternate world that Gilman has created for this story has a great continent broadly divided into two great zones: the settled East, where things have been 'made' or 'shaped' into their final forms as we know them. Peace, order and (good?) government are the rule here and the countries of the East seem to combine elements of both the settled eastern states of the historical U.S. and the 'old world' of Europe. Science and Technology, law and order, are well-founded here, though not with the inflexible singleness of vision of the Line. Out beyond the borders of the map, however, lies the West. Beyond the great, and aptly named, World's End Mountains, lies a country that grows more lawless, and even physically unformed, the farther out you go. Only the Line has brought Order to parts of the West, but its order is a sterile thing, consuming all in its path and replacing it with factories and stations for its great engines, peopled by its hive-like minions who are driven to build and destroy in equal measure. The Agents of the Gun are themselves compelled by their masters to halt the Line wherever they are able, reveling in death and chaos no matter the price. Caught between these two forces are the small communities of 'normal' people who seem to simply sit back and hope that both the Line and the Gun will ignore their presence, at least in their own lifetime.

Amidst these great swathes of black and white, however, Gilman does manage to include many shades of grey in his story at both the macro and the micro level. At the macro level we have the Red Valley Republic, a gathering of many smaller nation-states of the unformed West under one banner and the leadership of the great General Orlan Enver. The Republic is another great power, able in its heyday to do the impossible: hold off both the Line and the Gun, and prosper in the unformed West. They are not, apparently, driven by any demons or supernatural forces, but only the human ideals and hopes of their founders...though these prove to be as dominating and heedless, in their own way, as the more metaphysical powers. At the micro level we have Gilman’s nuanced characterization, especially as seen in his three main protagonists who move the plot forward: Liv Alverhuysen, a bored widow and professor of psychology at the Koenigswald Academy who dreams of the possibilities of adventure that await in the West, John Creedmoor an aging charmer who also happens to be an Agent of the Gun, and Sub Invigilator (Third) Lowry, a lowly cog in the great human machine of the Line.

As the story proper begins the Red Valley Republic is nothing more than a dream and a memory: a failed fable and cautionary tale of the price of opposing the two great Powers. Liv has received an enigmatic letter requesting assistance from the aptly named House Dolorous, a hospital and hospice on the very edge of the settled West designed to care for those broken by the endless war of the Powers. She jumps at the chance to leave her comfortable and staid life behind and go into the unknown. Creedmoor, a somewhat cowardly and lazy adventurer who has been laying low and avoiding the call of his harsh masters, is suddenly prodded back into service and set on a track that will lead him to cross paths with the other main players of the tale. Lastly, we have Lowry, the lowly, but ambitious, peon of the Line, destined to rise in the ranks of the great machine as he too is goaded on by his masters to find the prize that all three characters will eventually pursue: the great General Envers, thought lost, though now convalescing at the House Dolorous in a fit of madness brought on by one of the horrible weapons of the Line. Apparently the general holds a great secret of the First Folk (the somewhat elvish, somewhat aboriginal, somewhat otherworldly first inhabitants of the West who are enslaved by everyone else when they are not free to roam the unformed wilderness), that both Powers crave for their own, and fear may fall into the hands of their enemies.

I really enjoyed this book, and Gilman's prose is very fluid, so even though it is a sizable tome I found that the pages flew by fairly quickly. This is my first introduction to what has been labelled the ‘Weird West’ in genre circles, and which shades mildly into areas of steampunk, and if it’s an indication of what else is out there in this genre then I’m excited to continue in my discoveries. I thoroughly enjoyed this book both for the extensive worldbuilding that Gilman did, as well as his admirable work with characterization. Each of the main protagonists is nuanced and interesting, and even Creedmoor and Lowry are able to rise above being simply placeholders for their respective Powers. For his part Creedmoor combines the nostalgic regret of an old gunslinger seeing something of the error of his ways, though held back from change by inertia and cowardice, while Lowry, despite being born and bred as simply a cog in a wheel, displays aspects of individual thinking and initiative that could just as likely get him killed by his Masters as promoted by allowing him to complete his goal. Liv stands in for the rest of us, those ‘normal’ people not beholden to any supernatural Power for their goals and abilities, and who must make her way in the world with only her own intellect and conscience to guide her. General Envers, even though insane and mostly silent for the majority of the book, is also a very interesting figure who, despite his affliction, looms large in the story and stands almost as a power unto himself.

Highly recommended.

Also posted at Goodreads

He who controls the spice controls the universe...


Frank Herbert


Reviewed by: Terry
5  out of 5 stars

Is it space opera? Is it political commentary? Is it philosophical exploration? Is it fantasy? _Dune_ is all of these things and possibly more. One thing I do know: it's a kick-ass read!

I've loved this book since I first plunged into it's mightily constructed, weird and obscure world. Of course it's hailed as a classic, and I am one of those that agrees. The sheer magnitude of Herbert's invention, his monumental world-building tied with an exciting story of betrayal, survival, rebellion and ultimate ascendance are more than enough to guarantee that.

His characters too, are worthy of note: Paul Atreides the young heir to not only a ducal throne, but the hopes and desires of the oppressed population of an entire planet and the strange otherworldly powers of prescience and command that are his unique birthright; his mother Jessica torn between devotion to her family and her pledge to a generations-long plan spawned by a secret order bent on controlling the universe from behing the scenes; Chani and Stilgar the wild yet honourable representatives of a dangerous people just waiting to burst their chains and explode onto an unsuspecting universe. Add to these heroes the malign Baron Harkonnen and his debased nephews Feyd Rautha and "the beast" Rabban, the spiteful and covetous Emperor Shaddam IV, masterminds of the fall of Paul's House, and we have the recipe for an exciting contest of wills with no less than the future of humanity at stake.

Even without an exciting story to drive it, the book is almost worth reading just to experience the world created by Herbert. 10,000 years in the future mankind has experience the "Butlerian Jihad" wherein all "thinking machines" were destroyed and the hatred of the technological has a religious conviction. In their place there are the Mentats, the "human computers" able to utilize the human mind to nearly it's full potential, drawing accurate inferences and conclusions with minimal data. There is the Sisterhood of the Bene Gesserit, a community of women who have honed their mental powers to the point of a near magical ability to coerce, tied with a training in politics and influence that would make Machiavelli proud. Finally is the Guild: a community of mutated humans, the sole "pilots" able to bend space and foresee their path amidst the void and thus keep interstellar trade and community together.

Both the Siterhood and the Guild owe their great powers to the mysterious spice Melange, the only product of the planet Arrakis (known colloquially as Dune) and the society of the Empire in general also depends on it for its "geriatric qualities". Dune is thus the linch-pin for all Imperial power. Without the spice, travel ceases, trade stops, life ends. He who controls the spice controls the universe.

Upon this stage is born Paul Atreides, the son of the Duke who is to take control of Arrakis as a fiefdom for the emperor. Paul is not merely the heir to political power though, for he is the last link in a chain of breeding that has been going on for generations, part of a plan created by the Bene Gesserit in the hopes of breeding a superhuman whom they could control. But Paul was born too early, his mother's rebellion against her orders have brought about an unforeseen occurrence. Now in the midst of political betrayal and the loss of all he has known Paul must also fight for survival amongst the most merciless tribe of humanity the universe has formed. Greater powers than any human before him has known will be thrust upon the young man, and the mantle of messiah will be his to accept or reject.

Did I mention that I love this book? Well I do. I highly recommend it to any and all. I must admit that there is the occasional infelicity in some of Herbert's prose (and a too-heavy reliance on inner monologues to either state the obvious or convey information to the reader), but overall I can forgive him this for having crafted such an excellent tale. Woven into the story of a tottering space empire are real questions about ecology, responsibility and human life that are well-worth thinking about. Politics is not just a veneer, but the lifeblood of this story and, to me at least, it makes it all the more exciting.

I'll admit right here that I am one of the few who actually likes all of the original Dune books, though I must admit that after the original trilogy Herbert seems to lose some of the strands of his narrative thread and my admiration is mostly due to one of the main characters (name removed for spoiler reasons) and the world-building. (But please avoid the prequels and sequels written by Herbert's son and Kevin Anderson in an attempt to cash in on the franchise, they are worse than anathema.)

Also posted at Goodreads

THE SWERVE: How the World Became Modern
Stephen Greenblatt

W.W. Norton
$26.95 hardcover, available now

Reviewed by Richard, 5* of five

The Publisher Says: One of the world's most celebrated scholars, Stephen Greenblatt has crafted both an innovative work of history and a thrilling story of discovery, in which one manuscript, plucked from a thousand years of neglect, changed the course of human thought and made possible the world as we know it.

Nearly six hundred years ago, a short, genial, cannily alert man in his late thirties took a very old manuscript off a library shelf, saw with excitement what he had discovered, and ordered that it be copied. That book was the last surviving manuscript of an ancient Roman philosophical epic, On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius—a beautiful poem of the most dangerous ideas: that the universe functioned without the aid of gods, that religious fear was damaging to human life, and that matter was made up of very small particles in eternal motion, colliding and swerving in new directions.

The copying and translation of this ancient book-the greatest discovery of the greatest book-hunter of his age-fueled the Renaissance, inspiring artists such as Botticelli and thinkers such as Giordano Bruno; shaped the thought of Galileo and Freud, Darwin and Einstein; and had a revolutionary influence on writers such as Montaigne and Shakespeare and even Thomas Jefferson.

My Review: De rerum natura was a long narrative poem expounding Epicurean philosophy that was written in the first century before the common era. I am told by those possessed of sufficient Latin fluency to appreciate it that it is beautiful. I am not possessed of that level of fluency, and to me it seemed agonizingly impenetrable and obscurantist.

But author Greenblatt, in this fascinating Pulitzer Prize-winning history and analysis of the poem and its influence on the world, focuses not on the merits of the poem but on the genesis, development, survival, and influence of De rerum natura, arguably the foundation text for the mental construct that you and I share, and that diverges widely from the mental construct of earlier times.

Why is this so? Because we accept a material explanation of the existence of things as our prevailing orthodoxy, even in the face of religious challenges to the primacy of logic and evidence and just plain good sense. It's down to Lucretius's poem's astounding clarity of thought, persuasiveness of rhetoric, and miraculous survival and rebirth.

What Greenblatt did was to provide a brief history of Epicurus, his actual philosophy, and the cultural currents that distorted and misrepresented his philosophy, together with the whys and wherefores of that misrepresentation. Then Lucretius, a shadowy figure whose biography is unknown to modern readers except for a calumny heaped on his memory by a man who did not know him and in fact lived centuries after his death, wrote in poetry...a form of expression not to Epicurus's taste or, in his opinion, a good and useful tool of communication, he preferring plain and simple and direct prose...broke down the Epicurean vision of the world, and argued in support of it. Greenblatt then traces the survival of manuscripts from antiquity to the Middle Ages, the resurgent interest in their contents during the run-up to the Renaissance, and the incalculably valuable role of obsessive individuals in hunting down, copying, and disseminating the surviving antique texts to a world then, as now, hungry for more and better and different views and experiences and thoughts and ideas.

I give this book one of my rare five-star ratings because it has solved a problem of identity for me: I am, as Thomas Jefferson said before me, an Epicurean. Not the debased view held of that noble philosophy thanks to “Saint” Jerome, who in the course of ramming his ignorance-celebrating religion down the throats of humanity, hit on the perfect misstatement of Epicurus's actual materialist philosophy: Hedonism! Hedonism and vice and licentiousness and gluttony! The pursuit of pleasure can only mean these things, shouted Jerome, and the chorus of baying dogs was off after the fox.

We all know how that ends.

Chapter eight of The Swerve, “”The Way Things Are,” breaks out the point-by-point reality of Epicureanism, and is the prime motivating factor for my five-star rating. (In fact, I dislike Poggio Bracciolini, the discoverer of De rerum natura, quite intensely, and suspect that had I met him in life, I would have been repulsed by him.) I list here the bullet points Greenblatt is at pains to provide with clear, concise, and satisfying explication:
--Everything is made of invisible particles. This is called “atomism.”
--The elementary particles of matter...are eternal.
--The elementary particles are infinite in number, but limited in shape and size.
--All particles are in motion in an infinite void.
--The universe has no creator or designer.
--Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve. (Another word for this is collision.)
--The swerve is the source of free will. If there is no preordained pattern, how can there be a preordained result?
--Nature ceaselessly experiments. Evolution by natural selection, anyone?
--The universe was not created for or about humans.
--Humans are not unique. We are animals, literally not figuratively, like all the others.
--Human society began, not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.
--The soul dies. There is no afterlife.
--Death is nothing to us. It is merely a fact. There is no personal component to death.
--All organized religions are superstitious delusions. Religions are, invariably, cruel.
--There are no angels, demons, or ghosts.
--The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.
--The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain, it is delusion.
--Understanding the true nature of things generates deep wonder.

I have never seen in print or heard with my ears a clearer, more concise, or more complete statement of my own personal worldview than this. It rang me like a bell. It sounds like Lucretius was sitting inside my head and copying down my responses to the world.

In the brief explications Greenblatt attaches to the bullet points, he makes it clear that these ideas, while they never wholly vanished from the world, were seen by the dominant world-view as a challenge to the idiotic legendary nonsense that had come to replace them, and were thus strongly condemned, to the point of burning people alive as a punishment and a warning to others inclined to think for themselves, to view the world as it is instead of through a warped fantasy construct that demonstrably causes harm and pain and facilitates much evil-doing.

So on that basis...five stars, and a ringing huzzah, to Gentile Signor Poggio Bracciolini; to Greenblatt for digging deeply enough in the humus of scholarly debate and historical records to make these connections for us, in a less scholarly age than the Renaissance, to find and use for ourselves as we see fit (ie, to exercise the free will we've got); and to WW Norton for publishing the resultant text as an under-$30 course in humanism. I am also grateful to the Pulitzer Prize board for awarding this book its non-fiction encomium, and to the Catholic News Agency for remaining consistently wrong by grousing about the book's anti-Catholicism and misinterpretation of the Church's anti-intellectualism. It's kind of hard to misinterpret burning people at the stake, guys. Own up: Your religion requires ignorance and prefers stupidity in its adherents.

Books such as this one do nothing to enhance religion's role in human affairs. It is best avoided by those of religious bent.

Cacogens and Chiliarchs - Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun

Sword & Citadel (The Book of the New Sun, #3-4)

Shadow & Claw (The Book of the New Sun, #1-2)

Some sf/fantasy books transcend the medium and become a measuring stick, a standard against which future books compared.  Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun is one of those works.  I'm going to reveal my thoughts on the epic and I may reveal some spoilers so you may want to turn back now.  After all, as Severian says, "It is no easy road."

Still here?  Good.

The Book of the New Sun is the story of Severian, an apprentice torturer who is exiled from the city of Nessus after helping a "client" by enabling her to kill herself to escape torture.  Severian is ordered to go to Thrax to serve as carnifex and gets into a slew of trouble along the way, eventually becoming the new Autarch, or ruler.

It's a lot more complicated than that.  For one thing, Severian is an unreliable narrator, relating the story more like a normal person would rather than the way most books are written.  He leaves things out, doesn't reveal pertinent details until later, and sometimes comes across as not quite sane.

The setting is a lot like Jack Vance's Dying Earth.  The sun is red, Urth is slowly being covered by ice, and man's former glories are strewn about.  Wolfe makes the setting feel much more alien by peppering the text with words like Autarch, chiliarch, cacogen, exultant, optimate, destrier, and more, and never revealing what the words actually mean, leaving the reader either to google the word or infer the meaning from context.  It's a little jarring at first but soon I was looking for ways to work armiger into a sentence.

The writing reminded me more and more of G.K. Chesterton as I went on, particularly when the extent of the Autarch's involvement in the story was revealed.  Much like the reveals of which of the characters are policemen rather anarchists in The Man Who Was Thursday, I eventually was thinking "How many characters were actually the Autarch or working for him?"  The Book of the New Sun also contains hints of Michael Moorcock and Jack Vance.

Here are some moments I found particularly memorable in The Book of the New Sun:

  • The avern duel - Where else have you seen two men fight with razor sharp flowers?
  • The alzabo - Severian injests a drug and a piece of Thecla's flesh, allowing her memories to mingle with his
  • The fight with the man-apes and the reveal of the Claw of the Concilliator - Severian has his Bilbo Baggins moment and finds out the bauble he carries has power
  • Big Severian and Little Severian - Severian encounters an orphan with the same name as his.  Their relationship reminded me of Roland and Jake from The Gunslinger. 
  • Severian's dealing with Typhon - There isn't a whole lot of action in the Book of the New Sun so it was shocking when Severian dealt with Typhon.
  • Severian and the Autarch - The payoff of all the machinations lurking in the background was worth it when the Autarch finally gave Severian  a look behind the curtain.
I initially only rated the Book of the New Sun a four but had to upgrade it to a five when I kept catching myself thinking about it a year after I read the final page.

It's the end of the world as we know it...

Riddley Walker

Russell Hoban


Reviewed by: Terry
5  out of 5 stars

_Riddley Walker_ is the book that put Russell Hoban on the map (inasmuch as he is on the map…he is criminally neglected as an author) and will likely be the one work for which he will be remembered (sadly he passed away in late 2011). So far I have read three other Hoban novels and while I have thoroughly enjoyed all of them I must admit that I think this one is his very best.

Many, upon reading the first page, will dismiss the book as “gimmicky” (I am growing to hate that term as applied to books) due to the style in which Hoban writes. Admittedly his language isn’t easy to slip right into given that he has created his own broken, not quite phonetic, future version of English that is further complicated for many readers by being based on the Kentish dialect. Thus we have as our introduction to Riddley and his world:

On my naming day when I come 12 I gone front spear and kilt a wyld boar he parbly ben the las wyld pig on the Bundel Downs any how there hadnt ben none for a long time befor him nor I aint looking to see none agen.

That’s definitely one of the easier passages and things get more complicated when words and phrases are elided or significantly changed when they refer to things from the deep past (our present), and concepts that people in Riddley’s day don’t fully comprehend or whose meaning has changed in their time. Still, for me _Riddley Walker_ is probably the non plus ultra of post-apocalyptic fiction. Sure there are many others out there that are excellent, and I have by no means read in the genre exhaustively (I still have to read classics like _The Death of Grass_ and _Earth Abides_), but there is something about Hoban’s work that seems to define the genre for me. His ability to capture a world that is at the same time horrifying and homely, a world that shows humanity utterly changed and yet exactly the same as we’ve always been is superlative.

Our hero, the eponymous Riddley Walker, is a young boy just coming of age at a moment when his world stands at a crossroads, change is either going to sweep humanity forward or back into the dustbin of history. Riddley truly is the crux of the novel (both thematically through the role he plays in the plot and stylistically given that the narrative is his own first-person account), the centre around which it revolves and also the primary element upon which it succeeds or fails for the reader. For me his character is an unqualified success. He is an everyman who harbours within himself unknown potential. He is a realist not given to self-delusion and yet in him is a belief in the human spirit, a sense of the positive, that is uplifting without being cloying. Through Riddley we are given an effective melding of hopelessness and hopefulness: a picture of a world steeped in melancholy and loss that may be the dying gasp of humanity or its first step forward out of the ashes.

Riddley's world is a grey one, painted in the broad strokes of grizzled rain, decaying edifices of the past, and a hard life of scrounging amidst the muck and ruins in search of the bare necessities of survival. Despite this bleak setting Hoban still presents us with a fully realized world of warmth, humanity, danger, and loss. It is obviously a post-apocalyptic world that stands on the far edge of the fall: the ‘Bad Time’ of fire and destruction is now only a distant legend (as is the world that preceded it), as opposed to those ‘survivalist’ post-apocalyptic books that take place while the horror of loss and oblivion is still a fresh wound.  As is to be expected Riddley’s world is not an easy one. He lives in an Iron Age society in an England that had been bombed back to the Stone Age and is slowly clawing its way back up the ladder.  The old ways are starting to die out as the nomadic, foraging lifestyle is gradually being replaced by the more settled life of farming. The old tales and stories of our own lost time are perpetuated primarily through the existence of a modified Punch and Judy show. This puppet show is a government-sponsored propaganda machine wherein the main character is Eusa (a degraded and highly modified version of St. Eustace), a stand-in for the perpetrators of Armageddon, in which old knowledge and new superstition are mixed together to create a truly unique experience. Through the Eusa Show and the legends it spawned we come to see the hum drum aspects of our own age both through the eyes of wonder and awe, a sort of golden age when giants walked the earth, and through the lens of condemnation: how could those so wise have been so foolish? How could the god-like beings humans had once been have allowed Armageddon to have occurred? ”O what we ben! And what we come to!” laments Riddley at one point. These people are keenly aware of their loss. Whether it is through fluid medium of stories and legends or the more concrete witness of the ruins of burnt out cities and the hulks of dead machines, the ghost of the past lives on in Riddley’s present and is carried on the backs of those that remain as both a reminder and a deadly weight.

Government lackeys travel from place to place and perform their ‘Eusa Shows’ based on a memorized approved text, usually in order to give a government spin on recent events and enforce the accepted truths of what has been and what will be. In the midst of this endless round of ‘business as usual’ there is beginning to grow a renewed interest in the “cleverness” of the old ways and knowledge, especially that which revolves around power and destruction (known in Riddley’s vernacular as the “1 Little 1” and the ”1 Big 1”)…it’s a common theme in this type of literature: the human fascination with the worst side of our nature that seems inevitably to lead us to commit the same horrible mistakes time and time again no matter how harsh the lessons taught us (see Miller’s _A Canticle for Leibowitz_ for another example of this; these two books would actually make for a good paired reading).

You can get jus as dead from a kick in the head as you can from the 1 Littl 1 but its tha natur of it gets people as cited. I mean your foot is all ways on the end of your leg innit. So if youre going to kick some 1 to death it aint all that thrilling is it. This other tho youve got to have the Nos. of the mixter then youve got to fynd your gready mints then youve got to do the mixing of the mixter and youve got to say the fissional seakerts of the act befor you kil some body its all that chemistery and fizzics of it you see. Its some thing new. Which ever way you look at it I dont think Aunty and her red eyed rat be too far from us.

Of course the huge stumbling block for this book is obvious, it jumps out at you once you flip to the first page: the language itself. Is this degraded form of English nothing more than a gimmick? There will I suppose always be those for whom the answer is “yes”, but for me that isn’t the case…or at least it could have been simply a gimmick if it didn’t work, if there wasn’t more to the text than a degraded phonetic spelling. Luckily the language is built around a great story with much thoughtfulness on the human condition and human nature. Who are we and why do we act as we do? What does it mean to be human at all? Why do we live, and what is the purpose of our seemingly unimportant little lives? How do we connect with each other, and what are the things in life that are truly worth cultivating? How much of our life is determined and how much is freely chosen? All of these questions and more are asked in the text and while precious few answers may be given the possibilities that are presented give much food for thought. The language also allows the required distance between our world and this one of the far off future to be built and emphasized. Perhaps most importantly it allows us to zero in on what matters as we are forced to pay close attention not only to what is said, but how it is said. The strangeness of the language forces you to look at the familiar in a new way, to see things with new eyes as you work your way towards an understanding of what exactly is being discussed or viewed. Finally it also lets us inhabit the mind of our narrator and protagonist Riddley (as well as his world) in a uniquely engaging way.

This book is one of my favourites and it is highly recommended. The labour expended in reading it will be amply repaid as we go “roading thru that rainy dark” with Riddley Walker.

Also posted at Goodreads