Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

gone girlThere’s this tremendous moment halfway through Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl when the beleaguered but rather suspicious husband Nick opens the door to a creepy woodshed and begins yammering “Nonononono” in overwhelming panic and I thought hell yes, this is when the book is going to go from good to great, from kinda creepy to full-blown twisted, from Agatha Christie in the parlor to David Lynch cutting off the swaddling to reveal god knows what — bodies hanging from meat hooks? a perfect replica of a covered-up crime scene? Nick’s Rosebud? clones?!?!

But no.

Let me back up. The first half of Gone Girl is, basically, perfect. You get two competing and alternating first-person narratives, one from Nick and the other from his wife Amy. Amy disappears mysteriously (her POV is from the time leading up to her disappearance, Nick’s is from after), and suspicion begins to circle around Nick, who is completely baffled. And as the competing accounts build Flynn very effectively drops all sorts of hints that something is wrong. Not just a little wrong, but deeply, darkly, disturbingly wrong — and it all comes to a head when Nick sees what’s waiting for him in that woodshed.

The second half of Gone Girl gives all the answers. And I’m sure some people will be satisfied by them — and god knows it’s all readable enough to keep you up until 5 a.m. — but I was disappointed.

Look, I don’t really expect every book with a mystery to reach into science fiction to pull out a hand-wavey answer. But I use the bizarre excesses of scifi as exemplars of the kind of crazy thinking that’s really appropriate here. A writer can’t wind the reader up so tightly (as Flynn does so well during Gone Girl‘s first half) and then explain it all away with something mundane. But that’s what Flynn does here — and though it’s not predictable as such, the “answer” falls well within the range of things that this genre has already seen.

It’s really hard to talk about this without spoilers. So let me say a few things, in a spoilerish way, about my objections to where this book ends up.

(Perhaps I should emphasize: alert for vague spoilers.)

First: Gone Girl talks a lot about gender — a lot — in ways that demean both men and women in the beginning (battle of the sexes and all) but end up just being bad for women. I mean, the plot literally turns on the equivalent of false rape accusations and the purported female hysteria associated with this outrageously exaggerated danger. On the flip side, male transgressions — infidelity, emotional abandonment, etc. — are waved away with the equivalent of “But those bitches are crazy!” Ugh.

Second: There is a second, late twist in this book that basically requires a complete reversal from the first twist. But I just didn’t understand how the relevant person could “sell” the second twist to the world given what was done to make the first twist work. I mean, there are financial records, paper trails, and other physical evidence all done to make the first twist work — and somehow all of that stuff is waved away when the relevant person turns on a dime?

Third: The ending is kind of grotesque. You know how the advice for abused women is just to walk away? Yeah. Apparently the characters in this book think it’s better to just hug it out. That’s weird and twisted, sure, but for all the wrong reasons.

★★★☆☆

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The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes

shining girlsLauren Beukes’s The Shining Girls is about a time-traveling serial killer who snuffs out promising young women by brutally murdering them, and the lone surviving victim who becomes obsessed with finding him. But as cool as that concept sounds the book doesn’t really follow through on any aspect of it.

Take the time travel. It happens through a bit of hand-waving — there is a House that allows its occupant (in this case the serial killer) to step out at any point in a several-decade span of time. I’m ok with the fact that Beukes never explains how or why the House does this. But I’m not ok with how little she explores the time-traveling aspect of this story. Sure, there are some funny little loops that pop up (like the serial killer discovering a dead body “before” he’s killed the person) but for the most part the House serves the purely functional purpose of delivering the killer to his next victim. It might as well have been the subway, or underground tunnels, or a discreet chauffeur. There are no Primer-style paradoxes, or Back to the Future-style callbacks, or even the glimmer of a Big Idea from any of the people who discover the House and really should be knocked on their asses by the thought of what they could do with a time travel device. Beukes is so uninterested in the really interesting ramifications of time travel that it’s not clear to me why time travel had to be part of this book at all.

Next, the “shining” girls. Why does the serial killer (his name is Harper BTW) target them? Never explained. Are they actually girls with a bright future? That’s my guess — but who knows. (One of them is a stripper who literally glows from irradiated paint, which doesn’t strike me as a resume item for a Leader of Tomorrow.) It occurs to me that the shining girls are probably just a random collection of picaresques. And although Beukes admittedly does a good job in the few chapters told from the disparate victims’ POVs, if they’re just any old collection of people that makes both Harper’s obsession and the book’s point seem very small potatoes indeed.

Finally, the lone surviving victim, a young woman named Kirby. Her miraculous survival is told in one of the book’s most harrowing and effective chapters but outside of that she’s kind of useless. I’m dancing carefully around spoilers here but suffice to say that (1) she never really figures anything out from 95 percent of her “investigation,” (2) the solution, quite literally, comes to her rather than vice versa, and (3) she resolves nothing really — the cycle of deaths will continue, if I’m reading the ending right. If Kirby had just sat on her butt instead of engaging in lame repartee with a much older reporter who has the hots for her twenty-three-year-old self (a gross sidestory to this book), the result would not have been that different.

So all the really nifty parts of this book — the time travel, the victim class, the protagonist — don’t amount to much. But I didn’t hate The Shining Girls. It was very good in spots and easy enough to read one subway ride at a time. It just never felt as awesome or fresh or surprising as its premise promised.

★★★☆☆

Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

13547504Raising a child is a profound and terrifying experience even when her development is totally standard. The depth of parental devotion is a cliche but it’s true — when parents say that there is no pain they wouldn’t suffer for their child, they really mean it. But the vast majority of parents aren’t put to the test. For most of us, our anxiety is vastly out of proportion to reality. Our kids will turn out fine; if anything, we could stand to be less neurotic about their well-being.

Andrew Solomon’s Far From the Tree is about the parents who really are forced to confront the question of how far they’ll go for their babies — and the children who are the involuntary beneficiaries or victims of that choice. The book covers a wide range of afflictions, including deafness, schizophrenia, autism, Down’s syndrome, and more. Solomon spent years talking to different families and digging into the experience of raising and being raised with these conditions.

The families’ own words are staggeringly powerful. Again and again, Far From the Tree forces you to confront the harsh reality of parents making terrible choices in extremis. For example, I didn’t know before reading this book that many autistic children are incapable of expressing (or perhaps even feeling) anything like love — even as their parents go to extraordinary lengths to address their symptoms, which can include seizures, violence, and self-harm. Raising the most severely autistic children, this book makes clear, requires a parent to be something close to a saint: abnegating self-interest out of a pure sense of duty, and nothing else.

Multiple severe disabilities represent, in a sense, the other side of this dilemma. The children are often affectionate, sometimes lucid, but their lives are bleak and full of pain. That’s bad enough, but the real agony for parents is knowing that their child has no future — a thought that mixes both relief and heartbreak. (On a related note, I suggest checking out this article and related video if you want a good cry. My wife was obsessed about this for days.)

Reading this book as a parent is really hard. It’s impossible not to put yourself in the parents’ shoes and wonder what you would or would not do if faced with the same set of circumstances. What would you do during pregnancy if you knew that your child would be born with Down’s syndrome — a condition that is neither fatal nor crippling, but that will require you to care for your child for her entire life? Would you put in the extraordinary effort necessary to ensure that your deaf child receives all the education that she needs? How long could you withstand the delusions of your paranoid schizophrenic daughter until you finally commit her to a psychiatric institution?

For the most part, Solomon’s reporting errs on the side of optimism — this book is filled with parents heroically sacrificing their careers, their personal interests, and even their own families (marriages and siblings are particularly vulnerable) to give their children the best lives possible. It’s very uplifting! But then there are passages like this, in the chapter on autism:

In 1996, Charles-Antoine Blais, age six, was killed by his mother, who did no jail time but served one year in a halfway house and then was appointed as a public representative by Montreal’s Société de l’autisme. In 1997, Casey Albury, age seventeen, was strangled by her mother with a bathrobe cord, after refusing to jump off a bridge. Her mother said to the police, “She was a misfit. People were scared of her because she was different. I wish it could have been quicker. I’d wanted to kill her for a long time.” She received a sentence of eighteen months for manslaughter. In 1998, Pierre Pasquiou was drowned by his mother, who was given a three-year suspended sentence. In 1999, James Joseph Cummings Jr., at the age of forty-six, was stabbed to death by his father inside the residential facility where he lived. Cummings Sr. was sentenced to five years in prison. That same year, Daniel Leubner, age thirteen, was burned alive by his mother, who was sentenced to six years in prison.

In 2001, Gabriel Britt, age six, was suffocated by his father, who dumped his body in a lake and then received a four-year sentence for pleading guilty to a lesser crime. Also in 2001, Jadwiga Miskiewicz strangled her thirteen-year-old son, Johnny Churchi, and was sentenced to time in a psychiatric hospital; a medical examiner said that she had “‘a rigorous standard of excellence’ she couldn’t live up to anymore.” In 2003, Angelica Auriemma, age twenty, was drowned by her mother, Ioanna, who had first attempted to electrocute her. Angelica’s mother said, “I worried obsessively”; she served three years. Also that year, Terrance Cottrell died of asphyxiation when his mother and other churchgoers submitted him to an exorcism. A neighbor described the mother as explaining how “they held him down for almost two hours. He couldn’t hardly breathe. Then she said the devil started to speak through Junior, though he can’t really speak, saying, ‘Kill me, take me.’ She said the church told her it was the only way to heal him.” She was not prosecuted; the minister who had led the exorcism was sentenced to two and a half years in prison and fined $1,200.

In 2003, Daniela Dawes strangled her ten-year-old son, Jason, and was given five years of probation. Her grief-stricken husband testified, “Until that day she was the best mother anyone could want.” In 2005, Patrick Markcrow, age thirty-six, was suffocated by his mother, who received a two-year suspended sentence; that same year, Jan Naylor shot her twenty-seven-year-old autistic daughter, Sarah, then set the house on fire, killing herself as well; the Cincinnati Enquirer wrote that they both “died of hopelessness.”

In 2006, Christopher DeGroot was burned to death when his parents locked him in the house and set it on fire. Each of them was sentenced to six months in jail. In 2006, Jose Stable slit the throat of his son, Ulysses. He called the police and said, “I just couldn’t take it anymore.” Jose Stable served a three-and-a-half-year sentence. In 2007, Diane Marsh killed her son, Brandon Williams, age five; the autopsy said he had died of multiple skull fractures and an overdose of Tylenol PM tablets; his legs were covered in burn scars because his mother used to discipline him by dipping him into scalding water. She was sentenced to ten years. In 2008, Jacob Grabe was shot by his father, who pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity.

And here’s another harrowing paragraph, in the chapter on the children produced by rape:

One woman I met outside Gitarama explained that a man killed her family, including her husband and three children, took her in sexual slavery for the duration of the genocide, and then fled. She gave birth to a son, then developed AIDS; the son remained healthy. Knowing she would soon die, she worried that he would have no relatives to care for him. So she tracked down his father in jail — this man who had killed her husband and children — and decided to build a relationship with him. Every day she brought him homemade meals in prison. She could not speak of what she was doing without staring fixedly at the floor.

* * * * *

Unfortunately, Solomon’s reporting is only half of this book. As the subtitle makes clear, Solomon also wants to comment on these children’s “Search for Identity.” But boy does his discussion of this topic go awry.

I actually have no fundamental disagreement with his analysis. The core of his argument is a distinction he draws between vertical and horizontal identities. A vertical identity is one you share with your parents, such as race, culture, family continuity, etc. Solomon argues persuasively that vertical identity is the default template for parents’ interactions with their children — hence the widespread assumption that parents will “pass on” their lives to their kids. Horizontal identity, by contrast, is a child’s self-conception based on traits that her parents don’t share.

Obviously people experience both forms of identity as a matter of course (e.g., everybody has school friends or work colleagues that don’t overlap with their family ties). What is special about the parents and children Solomon writes about is that vertical identity is wholly shattered — leaving behind bewildered parents who often just do not understand their children on a basic level — and horizontal identity is often the only source of community available. The level of that availability varies widely. Deaf children and dwarfs, for example, can rely on well-organized groups that host conventions and tailor curricula and social events to their needs. Children of rape, by contrast, live in a shadow world of shame. The overwhelming theme of Far From the Tree is that “different” children (and to some extent their parents) truly need these horizontal identities, even when they are difficult to construct — and particularly when parents reject the children who are strangers to them.

So far so good. The problem that I have (and I am deliberately leaving this for the end because of how much I appreciated the book overall) is that Solomon presents all of these thoughts in just about the most annoying way possible. The man is in love with the sound of his own writing, filling page after page after page with flowery but meaningless prose — for example, the ghastly phrase “shimmering humanity,” which Solomon loves so much that he later repeats it as “shimmering personhood.” Solomon regularly mistakes pretension for profundity — the only explanation for a sentence such as “Zhenya plays as though it were a moral act that could redeem the world.” And Solomon has an unhealthy obsession with cute turns of phrase. To wit:

As Aiden Key, a trans activist, put it, “My gender is who I am; my sexuality is who I bounce it off of.”

William Saletan, national correspondent at Slate, wrote, “Old fear: designer babies. New fear: deformer babies.”

The worst part is that Solomon interjects these twee thoughts everywhere — between every individual story, at the end of every chapter, at the beginning and end of the book, etc. It got to the point where I began skipping his ruminations and going straight to his reporting, which to Solomon’s credit remains outstanding throughout. I recommend you do the same.

★★★☆☆

Hothouse, by Brian Aldiss

aldiss-hothouseLet’s clear up a few things right from the start. You don’t read Brian Aldiss’s Hothouse for the plot, which is terrible. You don’t read it for the characters, who are shallowly drawn. And you don’t read it for the writing, which is distant and formal and anachronistic — typical Aldiss, in other words.

The only reasons to read Hothouse are: (1) its loving exposition of a hostile world in which vegetables have become predatory and humans tiny and vulnerable; and (2) its unrelenting, trippy weirdness.

The world-building is Hothouse‘s main draw. Indeed, in many ways it’s the book’s only draw. There’s no real plot, and not even a hint of character development. Instead, Aldiss’s “characters” essentially take a long tour from one bizarre environ to the other, allowing us to see through their eyes a cavalcade of wonders and horrors.

This aspect of the book is great. Aldiss’s imagination astounds. The sun is about to die. The earth has stopped spinning, leaving one side plunged in darkness and ice, and the other teeming with vegetation encouraged by twenty-four-hour sunlight. Animals have mostly been killed off by the newly evolved legions of predatory vegetables. Humans, shrunk to the size of small monkeys, barely survive. They are beset on all sides. Just in the first few chapters, for instance, Aldiss lovingly recounts a series of nightmare vegetables that bait, capture, and devour a traveling group of unfortunate humans in increasingly horrible ways.

Aldiss’s commitment to the terror and hopelessness of this world is impressive. This is not one of those optimistic tales of plucky humanity prevailing over hostile forces. Humans are doomed, both individually and as a species. Helplessness is their plight; “nothing now could be done” is the prevailing sentiment when some person in a careless moment falls victim to a predatory plant and waits in horror to be slowly digested.

But there is still wonder. Traversers — giant spider-like plants that can survive the vacuum and hard radiation of space — spin webs between the earth and the moon, unconsciously carrying plant spores and the occasional human being to the nascently lush lunar surface. The ocean has become filled with massive crustacean-like monsters, which engage in endless battles with land-bound plants over the beaches that separate their terrains. And the border between the sunlit half of the earth and its dark side is demarcated by enormous walls of ice and a vast twilight wasteland in which only a few hardy creatures can scrape out a living.

All of these remarkable environments are fascinating, and at its best Hothouse is just one crazy set piece after another. But at times, perhaps too many times, Aldiss’s fertile imagination veers into a bizarre trippiness. The morel is the most prominent example. Basically it’s a fungus that drops onto the main protagonist’s head and invades his brain. It’s alive and parasitic and highly intelligent, but it’s also hella weird, interjecting a wacky monologue as a separate voice in this narrative.

As weird as the morel is, it’s nothing compared to the Sodal Ye, an enormous fish-like creature with a gorgeous voice and prophetic powers that is carried around by an enslaved human whose body has been brutally adapted to the task.

And as weird as that is, it’s nothing compared to the occasional episodes when Aldiss apparently loses all touch with reality and churns out feverish passages like these:

‘Hear the clocks chime!’ twanged the morel. ‘They chime for us, children!’

‘Oh, oh! I can hear them!’ Gren moaned, twisting restlessly where he lay.

And in all their ears came a sound to drown all else, a chiming sound like diabolic music.

‘Gren, we are all going mad!’ Poyly cried. ‘The terrible noises!’

‘The chimes, the chimes!’ the morel twanged.

The chimes!

Aside from this somewhat disquieting weirdness, there are also aspects of Hothouse that are downright offputting. Aldiss occasionally plummets straight into sexism: “‘My fruit skin chafes my thighs,’ Poyly said, with a womanly gift for irrelevance that eons of time had not quenched.” And later, somewhat less offensively, “‘When we’ve explored, we will catch fish in the pool and eat them with fruit,’ she said, with a woman’s talent for producing comfort when it was needed.” Granted, Aldiss wrote this book during a different time, but even with this allowance these types of sentences are no less jarring.

More substantively, I really hated the tummy-belly men. The protagonists quite heartlessly abuse them — depriving them of comfort, leaving them behind, and ultimately driving them away. Through it all, the tummy-belly men keep up an endless stream of childlike antics and borderline retarded dialogue. The unceasing abuse of these annoying but nonetheless innocent and mentally damaged humans became (to me) ever more revolting as the story progressed.

I guess in a way that everything I’m saying here just reflects different sides of Hothouse‘s basic character. It is fundamentally a very uncomfortable novel, one that never lets you feel completely settled or at ease. Different aspects of that discomfort will appeal to or turn off different people. But there’s no question that it’s highly effective, even if not always pleasant.

★★★☆☆

Monsters of Men, by Patrick Ness

monAfter the high of The Ask and the Answer there was basically no way Monsters of Men was going to live up to that level of quality — and indeed it didn’t. But it was an interesting failure.

The Chaos Walking trilogy is all about difficult choices, and each book has had a different take on that theme. The first book was a straightforward chase drama in which the central choice was whether to descend to the level of the murderous townsfolk — and also whether to have faith in a better future. The second book presented an ethical dilemma about how to choose between two compromised sides.

Monsters of Men is superficially about war — but it’s really about how to atone for one’s guilt over terrible wrongs. The setup is great. As the Mayor and the Answer are about to engage in a battle to the death, the Spackle arrive in enormous numbers to avenge their enslaved and then slain brethren. To reflect the new characters, Ness introduces a third POV: that of 1017, the lone survivor of the Mayor’s slaughter of Haven’s Spackle slaves. 1017’s viewpoint is heartbreaking. We discover not only that he lost his beloved in the massacre, but that his long period of servitude also separated him from his fellow Spackle, who are united by some sort of shared consciousness. He is of course consumed by rage and grief and a powerful desire to take revenge — his chapters are essentially an endless howl of anguish and thwarted justice.

The thing is this he’s totally in the right. But the target of 1017’s anger is our very own Todd, who was essentially the overseer of the Spackle slaves during the previous book. Todd knows his role in their suffering and even their death. And yet because of his love of Viola he has no interest in dying — a survival instinct that he cannot root out — even though he acknowledges in his better moments that, yes, he should really be punished.

Finally Viola is horrified that with the arrival of the Spackle, the Mayor and the Answer have joined forces to save humanity. She still doesn’t trust the Mayor and is wary of Todd’s closeness to him — as well as his new inscrutability from mind-reading. And with the arrival of the settler ships she faces the unsettling question of whether to let this precursor to yet another batch of humans get involved in a war not of their making.

Ness should again be credited for setting up an incredibly interesting collection of conflicts and mixed feelings, with everybody literally sitting on weapons of mass destruction ready to be unleashed at any time. That being said the worst features of the first book once more rear their ugly heads.

For instance the book begins with a massive act of stupidity. Todd has the Mayor at his mercy — if not to kill, then at least to humiliate and crush forever — and he lets him go with a stern “I’ll be watching you, don’t try anything funny.” Are you kidding me. The Mayor doesn’t know anything but funny business! And of course he immediately resumes his snake oil charm, to disastrous effect.

In addition, to highlight the ethical dilemmas he poses, Ness too frequently gives his protagonists too much responsibility. At one point Viola is literally handed the trigger to megatons of ordnance and told, point blank, “The choice is yours: kill thousands, or spare their lives?” Of course Viola then immediately shows that she is, after all, still a freakin’ kid by impulsively sending missiles flying based on a fleeting belief that Todd is in danger. Next time, team, let’s keep the big guns away from the half-crazed hormone-flooded teenager.

Next I found the poor Spackle leader, the Sky, just hilariously incompetent. I mean the poor dude keeps acting all “I’ve got an awesome secret plan, trust me to take care of everything,” except that his secret plans keep failing — as in every time! — and he can’t even prevent the most obvious problems (like 1017 going crazy and trying to kill people), and then every time he lays yet another big one he gets all sad and brays “Peace,” i.e., “I surrender.” It is completely pathetic! And completely contrary to what I understand is supposed to be the gravity of his character.

Finally I didn’t like that this book had more climaxes than — well I was going to make an off-color joke but I suppose this is a family blog. Seriously though this book kept coming right up to a seeming conclusion and then something random would happen — somebody would go totally bat crazy, or launch into some inane scheme, or reappear from the dead, etc. etc. etc. By the time the book actually ended I half expected yet another curveball (seriously — I thought a sea monster would make a reappearance), but no all we get is the usual appearance of a sad ending except we can’t leave all the young readers crying so let’s throw in an epilogue that will set their imaginations on fire with thoughts of the hot reunion that will occur not in the book but in their fevered imaginations instead.

I’m actually surprised that Ness, who has been so bloody-minded otherwise, finally shied away from real consequences in the end. This trilogy had the potential of ending on a note as powerful as the His Dark Materials trilogy, which was far from perfect (very far) but concluded with this heartbreaking image of two young lovers in different dimensions sitting in parallel physical locations and imagining each other’s presence. Instead of a gut punch, Ness, perhaps because he too began to love his characters too much, lets them off.

I’ll be honest, in the immediate aftermath of finishing the book I was very happy for the mercy. But afterward I realized it was a glaring burst of dishonesty in a trilogy than otherwise has not flinched from hard questions and worse consequences.

★★★☆☆

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

knifeI read The Knife of Never Letting Go in one evening so there’s clearly a lot of good here but let me start with the bad.

Knife does two things that I really dislike in books. First it has some dumb protagonists. The main characters (Todd and Viola) are kids, so some idiocy is to be expected, but boy. They spend most of this book running away from a murderous gang composed of Todd’s former townsfolk and they just cannot get the running away right. They take long breaks. They dally. They spend twenty minutes sawing through a rope. They decide to have nervous breakdowns out in the open instead of, I dunno, hiding. They think oh the murderous townsfolk have given up (they haven’t). They even go backward at one point! I seriously wanted to sit them down and tell them, the first rule of running away is you RUN…AWAY!

Second the book tries to generate a lot of tension by withholding information that is readily accessible. For example Todd carries around this big book written by his mother. Relevant? WHAT DO YOU THINK?! True, Todd is functionally illiterate but it still takes ages before somebody says, want me to tell you what’s in the book? And Todd says no! I nearly stopped right there.

Relatedly there’s a big mystery about the town where Todd grew up. There are good reasons for the townsfolk (before they become murderous) to not say anything to Todd, but at some point he meets other people who know a lot more — and they don’t say anything either! I mean come on! I’d even accept an awkward “interlude” through another POV over this annoying coyness.

Ok. I feel better now.

Let me start at the beginning. Knife is a young adult science fiction novel about an alien world that’s been settled by humans, but not happily. The problem is that something in the world (it’s not clear what) makes people’s thoughts transparent to each other. It’s also killed all the women.

Todd has grown up as the youngest child in the last human settlement on the planet. There are 146 men in the settlement, and many of them are basically half crazy with lack of female companionship and the inability to hide their thoughts. Patrick Ness should be credited with going straight to where this situation would lead a group of men, which Todd explains by saying that the men are constantly thinking about big-breasted blonde women doing physically unusual things.

Oh, besides people it also turns out animals’ thoughts are readable though of course animals are a lot dumber. This is especially true of Todd’s dog Manchee who is hilariously obsessed with poo and who is also I’d wager the fan favorite character in this book. Seriously I loved that mutt so much.

Oh Manchee.

Anyway it turns out a lot of what I’ve just said is a lie (except for the mind-reading and the awesome dog) and Todd goes on the run from the angry townsfolk who have turned from fantasies about unrealistic women into thoughts of murder, just like that.

The plot revelations are neat but raise a whole lot of questions that I don’t believe are ever fully answered like: Why didn’t the townsfolk turn murderous earlier? Why didn’t other people deal with them earlier? What’s so special about Todd? What’s so special about the town — and the men in it? Good luck finding real answers. (There are some fig leaf responses in the text but they’re so lame they don’t count.)

Now I kid a lot but being serious for one moment the beginning of this book is a rocking roller coaster of excitement. Even as you’re screaming at Todd to get his ass moving you are growing tense watching him run. And so much crazy interesting new stuff pops up in the beginning that the fleeing never gets stale.

After the beginning things settle a bit but all in all this is one great chase narrative. There is this annoying bit about a Terminator-like preacher who I expected at any moment to be revealed as a cyborg but no, he’s just really resistant to pain and infection and massive crocodiles I guess? But other than that I say kudos to Ness for the adrenaline-packed narrative.

Also applause for the relationship between Todd and his new buddy Viola, who is very annoying while mute but quite endearing when she regains her voice. Both of these characters wear their hearts on their sleeves and emote like crazy which I like.

And the ending — yikes. I feel bad for the kids who didn’t have access to the sequel crying about the lack of fairness in the world.

So this book was really fun and really annoying but spent just enough time on the fun side to be a readable blast.

★★★☆☆

King of Thorns, by Mark Lawrence

12891107Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns is a good sequel to Prince of Thorns, but it suffers from some grievous flaws. The book picks up right where Prince ended, with the sociopathic Jorg sitting on the throne of Renar, but it then immediately launches into an aimless travelogue through much of this far-future Earth. I’m not sure that much of what then ensues is essential or even helpful to the story — including a drawn-out zombie attack in the swamps, and a pointlessly violent episode in a town called Endless. The reason for all of this traveling is also never made clear, nor the reason for all of Jorg’s many stops. At one point, for example, he even spends some time with a circus, and for a moment I thought I had been unpleasantly transported into the worst parts of The Wheel of Time series.

The other major problem with the book is how confusing it is. Like the first book, King of Thorns follows two main plot threads spaced four years apart. But, like the infomercials, there’s more! Early on there is a major disruption to Jorg’s memory, which means that another storyline is told in flashbacks. Running parallel to all of this is a diary kept by Katherine, the object of Jorg’s amorous obsessions. And churned into the mix is Sageous and other wizards, who can alter reality (or at least people’s perceptions of reality) in ways that really mess up both the characters’ memories and the author’s narrative.

It’s actually a clever structure, and who doesn’t love an unreliable narrator, but for whatever reason — lack of signposting, poor pace, misplaced red herrings — Lawrence isn’t able to organize these competing threads in a clear way. There is for instance a major twist near the end that I’m pretty sure is not forecast at all. I read most of the book feeling disoriented, and not in a good way.

All that being said, King of Thorns is still a good read, if a macabre one, and Lawrence’s writing of Jorg’s voice hits all the right notes. Although the first two-thirds of the book is basically straight fantasy, by the end there is a heavy dollop of the far-future science fiction that I love so much — including (spoiler alert) a very talky but revealing AI. And after the book’s aimless beginning the ending itself is pretty fun.

What’s especially good about King of Thorns is its development of Jorg’s character. Make no mistake, the dude is still a bloodthirsty killer, but he definitely has his softer moments in this book, and it rounds out the more one-note persona from the first book. What stands out to me the most are Jorg’s surprisingly civil visit to his mother’s family, and his first feelings of regret over a killing — two affecting but convincing episodes. Naturally the book ends with yet another of Jorg’s macho declarations of wading through blood and making his enemies’ women wail etc. etc. but the more complex portrayal of his emotional life gives his toughness a pathos that elevates this book above its predecessor.

(Though not enough to give it a better score!)

★★★☆☆