Saturday Star Wars: Chaos Rising (Thrawn Ascendancy #1) by Timothy Zahn — Book Review and Lingering Questions

Hullo everyone, and welcome back to Saturday Star Wars!

It has been a while, hasn’t it? Rest assured, I’m riding high on a Star Wars wave which’ll keep me pumping out regular editions of this column for a few weeks, at least!

Today, I’ll share with you an excerpt of my Chaos Rising review, which you can read in full over at the Fantasy Hive:

I hold Thrawn in such esteem because few characters signify the sci-fi elements of the Star Wars DNA better than he does. The best Thrawn stories, I have always held, are strong enough that they would thrive in a setting different from the Star Wars one. If you were to crop all the important plot points and characters, and only have to do some fine-tuning to make of a franchise novel something unique and original, could you do it? When it comes to most Thrawn books, the answer is a resounding yes. (With the exception of Thrawn: Alliances, that is, which incidentally is the weakest of Zahn’s Chiss-centred works.) These novels are enhanced by being in the Star Wars universe, not dependent on it.

Chaos Rising is a return to form for Zahn. The first in three novels which chronicle Thrawn’s ascendance in his native Chiss Ascendancy (you didn’t think I would resist, did you?), this does exactly what you want a Star Wars novel to do after the horrible dog’s breakfast** that was the sequel trilogy. It expands the fricking universe in ways that are beyond engaging, while offering a whole new look at our title character. One character I was crazy about in the Thrawn: Treason novel makes her return here – Admiral Ar’alani, whose personal history with Senior Captain Thrawn goes far deeper than I dared hope. She’s one of the main PoV characters in this one, and the novel is all the better for every sentence spent through her perspective; Ar’alani is almost a foil to Thrawn in some ways. Though incapable of seeing what he sees (Thrawn is a tactical genius, capable of understanding both the strategy and tactics of other species by studying their art and philosophy), Ar’alani excels at seeing through the minefield that is Ascendancy politics, and her own insights into military matters are no small thing. Through an unlikely friendship with the more junior officer, Ar’Alani proves an invaluable ally in the political machinations taking place against Thrawn.

One of the consistent points of Thrawn’s characterization across thirty years of books, comics and even animation has been his inability to process the world of political intrigue. In Chaos Rising, there’s no end to the Chiss’ blunders. Add to that the complex hierarchical order of the Ascendancy, with its nine ruling families plotting and conniving against each other for greater power, and you will begin to see how great a blind spot Thrawn’s political ineptitude is.

To read the full piece, click on the link above!

Right, with all this wonderful praise in mind, I’ve a mind to ask several questions. Some spoilers below, read at your own peril! Here’s what I want to learn in the next book:

  • Who guided Yiv the Benevolent? The very last scene at the end of Chaos Rising offers us a name, but what’s behind that name? Is this an agent of the power that has the Chiss Ascendancy desperate enough to fake Thrawn’s exile?
  • Is that exile faked? Timothy Zahn confirmed as much in 2017’s Thrawn, but could it be that this might be retconned, or that it was a lie told by Thrawn to close the gap between him and his foe in that piece, Nightswan? With the political clime against the senior captain the way it is within the Ascendancy, that is a distinct possibility.
  • How far is Thalias going to enter into the politics of the Mitth family, to keep the politically inept Thrawn safe? One of the finest scenes in the book showcased her conversing with the ailing Patriarch of the Mitth, and his revelations about Thrawn will doubtless place her in the thick of family politics. This leads me to my next question…
  • What will be the repercussions for Thrawn? Though he has succeeded with flying colours, the Chiss are staunch isolationists, loath to strike against someone without provocation. Yes, Thrawn managed to skirt through the lines and succeeded in what was necessary — but he was told there would be consequences, and I don’t doubt they will cost him.
  • And my last but most important question: Did Ar’alani and Thrawn bone? When she made commodore, a rather suggestive few lines hinted towards the possibility.

Those are the leading questions — when I return to them a year from now, I do hope I’ll have answers to all of these. Until then…

Join me over the next three weekends as I review Volumes 5, 6, and 7 of the Doctor Aphra graphic novel! That sounds exciting – it’s exciting, isn’t it?

The Beast and the Bethany by Jack Meggitt-Phillips — Book Review

The world of middle-grade fantasy fiction must be charming indeed, if Jack Meggitt-Phillips’ debut is anything to judge by.

The Beast and the Bethany is the charming story of 511-year-old Ebeneezer Tweezer, the most selfish man in all the world; and of the orphan Bethany, the naughtiest kid in all her orphanage. What connects these two? One is intent on feeding a monster; the other is destined to be the monster’s snack.

Yum!

This is a story of personal growth; though one has lived half a millennium and the other hardly eleven years, Ebeneezer and Bethany have led a similar existence — one of survival rather than living. For Ebeneezer, survival has become a goal in of itself; for Bethany, it’s a necessity, to hide the vulnerabilities of a lost young girl. As you might imagine, neither one likes the other much, at first; but both find they’ve a lot to learn.

And the Beast? What a ghastly villain! And what an appetite it has! I’m not one to cannibal-shame, but eating a Bethany?! That’s just severe, that is. Everything else, I could look past — the puking, the incurable appetite for new experiences, the frankly ridiculous amount of puking, and of course, the admirable appetite of a growing boy–blob, I meant blob.

This is an entertaining book; I chuckled well more than once, downright laughed a couple of times. Levity is key in a good middle-grade book about monsters eating children, but no less so than moments of emotional release — and The Beast and the Bethany delivers just such excellence.

I disliked the sequel-bating at the end, however – what is this drive to extend perfectly charming stories, anyway?!

All in all, an excellent debut on the part of Jack Meggitt-Phillips – if you have a child, or are interested in children’s literature, this might very well make a fantastic gift. The illustration are beyond charming, themselves, and excuse the purchase of this book on their own!

Thank you to Egmont and TheWriteReads for offering me an Advanced Review Copy as part of the title’s blog tour.

Coventry: Essays by Rachel Cusk – Book Review

Over the last ten months, I’ve began to look to Rachel Cusk’s work with a reverence bordering on religious fervour. Her Outline trilogy* is revelatory, and does what few novels ever manage – it updates character, changes the narrator’s role to little more than a lens to look through. Further, it sacrifices that central individuality of the focalizer almost to the point of eliding the very notion of that individuality.

As you see, discussing Outline awakens a deep passion within me, for the craft as much as the ideas given voice. The same can be said of Coventry, which demarcates its seventeen essays into three parts: the first section, “COVENTRY,” examines topics of a deeply personal nature to Cusk, drawn from her own experiences; the third section, “CLASSICS AND BESTSELLERS,” tells of important authors and their works, and is generous in its praise (and on one account, in its deft critique) of all of them; and last but not least is “A TRAGIC PASTIME,” the second section, which seems to criss-cross the boundaries between the two, its four essays on topics both personal and literary.

The six essays falling into the “COVENTRY” section are universally strong; “Driving as Metaphor” takes a topic I would find snore-inducing on any other day, and turns it into an engaging conversation about this strange activity, which isolates and shifts the behaviour of the individual. It examines also people like myself, who “appear to have known from the beginning that driving wasn’t for them: often they are individuals society might label as sensitive or impractical or other-worldly; sometimes they are artists of one kind or another.”

“Lions on Leashes” is about children, and how they grow from the protagonists of a story told by their parents into free agents with a will of their own. It’s about the way parents dictate their children’s lives, and about that point when it is no longer impossible, when the physical authority parents use to enforce their will is no longer an available tool. It’s also about “the hysteria around maternal ambivalence,”(93) which society “turns into something blatant and grotesque.”

Cusk’s words here, especially, connect to one of my favourite Greek tragedies: “Medea doesn’t kill her children because she dislikes them or finds them irritating. She kills them because her husband has abandoned both her and them for someone young, beautiful and rich. She refuses to be made such use of. She refuses to let him get away with it.” This fits in exceptionally well with my essay on Euripides’s Medea. Find the time to read it — this Greek tragedy is still relevant today. If you get your hands on “Lions on Leashes” — which, outside of Coventry, can be found in the NYTimes — read the two together, there’s almost a dialogue between them.

“Making Home” and “On Rudeness” are phenomenal works, which pushed me into deep introspection, as did “Coventry,” the titular essay of the collection examines a very specific phrase I had no familiarity with, “being sent to Coventry.” The connotations it has for family, the relationship between parents and children, and silence make for captivating subject matter.

My favourite piece in the second part, “A TRAGIC PASTIME” is “How to Get There.” It is a beautiful love letter to creative writing and its role in society: “If creative writing culture represents only that — freedom — it is justification enough.” A particularly poignant part of this piece says:

The reattachment of the subjective self to the material object is where much of the labour of writing lies — labour because, in this one sense, writing feels like the opposite of being alive. The intangible has to be reversed back into tangibility; every fibre of subjective perception has to be painstakingly returned to the objective fact from whence it came. The temptation is to elude this labour by ‘making things up’, by escaping into faux-realities or unrealities that are the unmediated projections of the subjective self. This is not the same thing as imagination or inventiveness: the feeling of not believing something you are reading arises not from the fact that it is set in Hogwarts School but from the suspicion that it is pure projection. A writer who knows how to give subjective content an objective form can be as far-fetched as she likes. A writer who doesn’t can make even the most creditable things unbelievable. (185)

Seems to me that this penetrates at the heart of what makes good speculative and SFF fiction.

“I Am Nothing, I Am Everything” was perhaps one of the weaker essays, though that says little — even the least of them offers an engaging intellectual debate between what’s on the page and the reader.

In “Shakespeare’s Sisters,” the question of “women’s literature” is examined, dissected with a scalpel and brought home to a conclusion many will find contentious — I, myself, question it with great relish.

The pieces on Lawrence, Ishiguro and Edith Wharton made me care for each and every book Cusk mentioned — I’ve long wanted to read the former two, but I don’t think I’d heard of Wharton, except maybe in passing.

Cusk’s esssay on “Eat Prey Love” is a meditation on the nature of that bestselling book, its main critique that Gilbert’s voyage of self-discovery is, in a word, vapid. “…[Gilbert] might have chosen not to live entirely and orgiastically in the personal — in pleasure — but instead to have renounced those interests in pursuit of a genuine equality. But to say that, of course, would be to take it all much too seriously.” (233)

“On Natalia Ginzburg” offers an excellent cut-off point to the anthology, with a final line that offers a stark glimpse at the role of writing, from Ginzburg’s own collection of essays:

And you realise that you cannot console yourself for your grief by writing . . . Because this vocation is never a consolation or a way of passing the time. It is not a companion. This vocation is a master who is able to beat us till the blood flows . . . We must swallow our saliva and tears and grit our teeth and dry the blood from our wounds and serve him. Serve him when he asks. Then he will help us up on to our feet, fix our feet firmly on the ground; he will help us overcome madness and delirium, fever and despair. But he has to be the one who gives the orders and he always refuses to pay attention to us when we need him.’

An excellent reflection on writing to close the non-fiction anthology of a writer so inquisitive, so searching as to the nature and function of writing, don’t you think?

The only element of Coventry I would bemoan is the lack of a proper introduction to this collection, either from Cusk herself or from whichever editor aided in the collecting and publication of these seventeen essays in their single, 250-page tome. I would’ve so enjoyed some small foresight as to what drove Cusk to explore some of these themes — but that’s less criticism than a thoughtful shrug at what could’ve been.

Coventry is a must-have anthology for any lover of the essay, by a modern master of the form.

*I have spoken of both Outline and Transit, here and here.

The Little Sister by Raymond Chandler – Book Review

This is my penultimate Philip Marlowe novel and I am so happy with it, you guys.

The Little Sister is as self-reflective, exhausted and close to broken that I’ve seen Raymond Chandler’s PI get. He’s not having an easy time with what promised to be a simple enough missing person case, full of deceptive femme fatales, drugs, corpses and very angry cops. For once, Marlowe doesn’t get his teeth kicked in by the fellas at the local precinct, but it’s not for lack of desire on the part of certain of his new copper friends; makes for a nice change of pace, though, dunnit?

There’s an air to cynicism to The Little Sister which will stay on with you longer than you might be comfortable with; but it’s easy to relate to Chandler for underlining it. The almighty dollar is powerful indeed, folks. That’s a little something the cast of characters, no matter the societal class they belong to, no matter all else that might bind them together, are conscious of; worse than conscious, they’re ready to trod on any joint human relation if it means lining their pockets.

Philip Marlowe is the antithesis of that, a man who, despite his disillusionment with the world at large, has a strong moral backbone, a man unwilling to look the other way when injustice is being carried out. It’s his defining trait, and in the hardboiled world of the old-school crime thriller, it’s as good as you can hope for.

You have to admire Chandler, you have to. What he does with language, the force of his metaphors and flourishes is as much the reason behind the continued popularity of these novels as his plots and characters, perhaps more so. Reading him is like catching a whiff of asphalt fumes in a candy store; sweet as the prose is, it’ll always shock you, the things he comes up with:

Wonderful what Hollywood will do to a nobody. It will make a radiant glamour queen out of a drab little wench who ought to be ironing a truck driver’s shirts, a he-man hero with shining eyes and brilliant smile reeking of sexual charm out of some overgrown kid who was meant to go to work with a lunch-box. Out of a Texas car hop with the literacy of a character in a comic strip it will make an international courtesan, married six times to six millionaires and so blasé and decadent at the end of it that her idea of a thrill is to seduce a furniture-mover in a sweaty undershirt.

And on occasion, when he writes a line like this one: “She jerked away from me like a startled fawn might, if I had a startled fawn and it jerked away from me,” you know Chandler was a man who could take the piss out of himself, someone who knew how to keep the balance between serious and soul-crushing.

Ray Porter’s narration is, as ever, an easy 5/5. He is my Philip Marlowe, it’s as simple as that.

Few other paragraphs could beat this one for my favourite quote in the novel:

Philip Marlowe, 38, a private licence operator of shady reputation, was apprehended by police last night while crawling through the Ballona Storm Drain with a grand piano on his back. Questioned at the University Heights Police Station, Marlowe declared he was taking the piano to the Maharajah of Coot-Berar. Asked why he was wearing spurs, Marlowe declared that a client’s confidence was sacred. Marlowe is being held for investigation. Chief Hornside said police were not yet ready to say more. Asked if the piano was in tune, Chief Hornside declared that he had played the Minute Waltz on it in thirty-five seconds and so far as he could tell there were no strings in the piano. He intimated that someting else was. A complete statement to the press will be made within twelve hours, Chief Hornside said abruptly. Speculation is rife that Marlowe was attempting to dispose of a body.

Thanks for reading! Have a song to get you in the proper mood for a Marlowe story.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan – Book Review Repost

Series: The Black Iron Legacy # 1
Published by: Orbit
Genre: Dark Fantasy, Grimdark, High Fantasy
Pages: 544 (kindle edition)
Review Format: e-book
Purchased Copy.

I enjoy playing catch-up at year’s end – time is ever a limited resource and great books fall through the cracks more often than I’d like. One such prime example is The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, the first part in The Black Iron Legacy sequence, a wildly imaginative work. This is the author’s debut and it has put Hanrahan on just about every book blogger’s radar, at least in my tiny corner of the internet. Many have called it “the best debut of 2019” and now that I’ve read it, I can see why.

The Gutter Prayer is immensely imaginative, one of the first books I would hand over to someone who used to love fantasy but has gotten worn down by the conventions of the genre. It is an ambitious novel, unafraid to tackle the nature of gods and their relationship with their faithful, as well as economic inequality, the effects on deadly disease ravaging through the populace and more.

Guerdon is a fully realized city, every detail you could ask for mapped out and integrated into a heterogenous whole. I wouldn’t say it’s seamlessly done – no great city, no harbor port town in our own history could be described as seamless in that sense – but it is masterfully executed. This is a city of industry, with all that comes with that, from the shit-filled gutters and quarters dominated by crime and poverty and the stone plague to the homes of the middle-class and the boroughs of the rich, all the way to the city-within-a-city that is the Alchemist guild’s district. And that’s not even touching on the catacombs and tunnels down below, housing their own chthonic horrors…

So much is at play here, and it is slowly revealed through the eyes of an increasing cast of stellar characters, the first among which is a gutter rat of a thief called Cari, the lost daughter of a once-prominent Guerdon family. Cari is angry, brash and vengeful but above all else, she is as unlucky as they come, as before too long at all, she finds herself under the assault of strange, nightmarish visions whose appearance spells a great deal of trouble not only for Cari but for the city entire.

Her two friends, Spar and Rat – a Stone Man and a ghoul, respectively – further complicate matters. Spar is afflicted with a disease that slowly turns him to stone from the inside out. Before too long, he will be a prisoner of his own body, a living statue dependent on the mercy of others, until his lungs, his heart, his veins and blood also harden and calcify and he expires. The only stop-gap measure is an alchemical compound known as alkahest, expensive and difficult to get unless given directly by the Alchemist Guild; which is why so many Stone Men work as manual labourers for the Guild. But Spar doesn’t work for the alchemists– no, he’s part of the Brotherhood, a Thieves’ Guild, if you will, once under the control of Spar’s father Igde – an idealist who exemplified the romantic Robin Hood mentality of stealing from the rich and giving to the poor –  but now under new, far more cutthroat, less idealistic management. I didn’t necessarily like Spar for the first half of the novel; he’s hard-headed and obstinate, just like his decisions. But he grew on me, just like that crystalline formation keeps growing on him, taking away the physical boundaries of his humanity one inch at a time.

The ghoul, Rat, is a young member in a race of psychopomps, creatures that feed not only on dead flesh but on the souls of the dead, delivering them to the bosom of the Keeper gods, one would think. They’re a fun lot, ghouls are, and Rat most of all.

Ghouls love their eldritch mysterious stairwells descending infinitely into fucking shit-and-mushroom town.

Other characters also loan us readers their headspace – Jere, a thief-taker; an assistant at the university of Guerdon; a saint or two. These myriad viewpoints allow for a depth of experiences within the world, a mapping out of the different layers of society within this city. It’s downright Dickensian in how Guerdon is itself not only the battleground of so many different ways of life trying to assert themselves over the others, but a main character in its own right.

The city hasn’t slept. It staggers, drunktired, into the new day, uncertain of everything and looking for a fight.

Written in the present tense, it might take you a chapter or three of getting used to if you’re as used to reading in the past tense as I am – it’s certainly no hindrance to the enjoyment of The Gutter Prayer. I suspect Hanrahan chose it in order to further reinforce the feeling of immediacy in the action that often dominates the pages of the novel.

I must commend the author for the glossary of delightful monstrosities within these pages, from the alchemists’ insane servants, the Tallowmen with their wax bodies and sharp axes:

Before they can get to it, the door opens and out comes a Tallowman. Blazing eyes in a pale, waxy face. He’s an old one, worn so thin he’s translucent in places, and the fire inside him shines through holes in his chest. He’s got a huge axe, bigger than Cari could lift, but he swings it easily with one hand. He laughs when he sees her and Rat outlined against the fire.

all the way to the Gullheads; from the cursed Stone Men who become stronger the more their deadly disease progresses, to The Fever Knight, a creature of nightmare held together within its plate armour. Oh, and if these aren’t enough, there’s also worm-people, the arcane and utterly disgusting Crawling Ones:

Its voice is oddly musical and warm, but behind it she can hear the flapping and slithering of the worms, like hot fat on a frying pan. “What, may we ask, brings you walking in the places beneath?” It extends a cloth-wrapped “hand” to Aleena and helps her up. She feels worms pop and squish beneath the cloth as she pulls herself upright.

Ew. The descriptions of all these creatures lean almost towards the grotesque but they are all so very excellent. The cover, too, is a work of art, capturing the tone of the book perfectly – illustrated by Richard Anderson and designed by Steve Panton, it is nothing short of exquisite. If you take a look at it, you’ll get an idea, a feeling of what exactly awaits and this is witness to the makings of a great book cover.

Something that left a bit of a negative impression – I spied quite a few typos, an unusual number for an Orbit-published book. Something that could be cleaned up from the ebook and future reprints but at this point, I’m wondering whether to start offering my services as a copyreader.

Politics, magic, religion and alchemy all come to a head in The Gutter Prayer. Driven by a stellar cast of characters and an enviable imagination, this book is a must-read for fantasy lovers. My score for Hanrahan’s debut is 5/5 stars. 

Originally published over at booknest.eu — I’m archiving all my older reviews on this here blog, as it would be easier to categorize them all.

Movement is the End Goal: Rachel Cusk’s Transit (Essay)

The lights blinked twice and went out. I strapped the safety belt on, conscious of the blinking lights, conscious, too, of the cry of the toddler several rows back. A long flight, with no end in sight.

Next to me on the plane sat my creative writing instructor, a woman roughly the age of my mother. She is a writer of some renown, owed in equal parts by the fame she has found for renovating notions of character, and by the infamy she had been subject to for her frank, uncensored—what some would call selfish—account of her messy divorce with the father of her children. This story she told in a well-known novel from 2012.

We kept our silence over the duration of the lift-off, for no other reason than for the fact that neither of us had much to say. Now she took a deep breath and addressed me. “These last few months have been a time of transition for me.” A time of change, she adds, makes you conscious of nothing so much as the process of transformation itself. Everywhere she looked, she saw men and women struggle through one transition or another. Old lovers, friends, odious neighbors, acquaintances – everyone is transitioning, either through periods defined visibly through outside factors; or through internalised ones, at work in everything we touch, everything that touches us.

What drives it? She considered, looking down the aisle at the air hostess awhirl with activity. Just when I thought to call her attention again, my teacher’s voice picked up once more. ”It’s motion, and it’s static, this constant of ours.” Like with so much else, she said, change is defined by how we embrace it; through acts of will or surrender. Viewing the act of change like this offers you a good stage to talk about evil and love and parenthood, she said, and loneliness, and of so much more that goes into the human condition. She stopped, gaze narrowing, as if she were fast forwarding through what she just said. “An acquaintance of mine told me recently, ‘Loneliness is when nothing will stick to you, when nothing will thrive around you, when you start to think that you kill things just by being there.’”

But how does that connect to change, I asked. It leaves a mark, she told me, the kind that doesn’t come out with a bit of soap and a long soak. It shapes your thoughts and changes your inner self, and creates distance that’s difficult to overcome.

I thought I knew what she meant, I told her. I’d been lonely, myself. Was lonely, still—now and again.

She said, “We don’t even realise it. It dawns on us only once we turn around and look back.   Something a friend told me struck a note with me. ‘It’s strange,’ he said, ‘that you always changed everything and I changed nothing and yet we’ve both ended up in the same place.’ That’s how this silent, all-encompassing process works. You might have only caught glimpses of it this far, you’re—what, twenty-five?”

“In August.”

“You have noticed then, how people enter your life seamlessly, without flaw—and exit in much the same vein. You won’t be surprised to learn that sometimes, they come back. And sometimes, you’ll pick up where you left off, as if no time has passed at all, and no matter how much either of you has changed, you’ll find…it doesn’t matter at all. Does that negate the transition in the first place? “

I nod.

She curved her lips upwards as she told me, “It’s the way of change.” It’s not a one-way street, she said, this transformation of ours. At the right time, with the right person, time flows backwards, and you again return to that twenty-something year old, or that little girl. or boy.

She spoke for a long time, and I listened to all she said, and lost myself. The words she said were rarely about herself, but rather about the world as she saw it, and the people whose words helped her see it the way she did. My teacher had an understanding of human nature like few others I’d known. To immerse myself in her words was to catch a glimpse of that understanding, take possession of it—however fleeting. I was envious and almost lustful of that knowledge; the more she spoke, the more I wished to hear.

After the plane landed but before the seatbelt lights went off, I turned to her. She’d grown silent for the duration of the landing, once more withdrawing into herself.

“Thank you, Faye,” I told her. “Your guidance is invaluable. I think…much of what you’ve told me today will leave its mark for a long time to come.”

She nodded, her face serious. “I’m glad of it. But I’m curious – what do you think?”

I attempted to mimic Cusk’s style in this mixture between a review and an essay – I hope you’ve enjoyed the results. Some of the words I inserted into her mouth are direct quotes from the novel – I’ll leave it to you to judge which ones!

Ultimate Blog Tour: Knightmare Arcanist (Frith Chronicles #1) Book Review

Knightmare Arcanist was a joy to read, and went by as fast as any of the novels I’ve read over these last few months.

Shami Stovall has created a readable and endearing world in the setting of her Frith Chronicles, full of magic and mystical beasts, but also countless dangers. …Okay, I can only come up with two right now, but they’re pretty pirates and the plague.

At least one of those is topical to the current clime, I say.

Volke has been disliked all his life, for crimes committed by the parents he hardly knew. A gravekeeper’s apprentice, and with only his adopted sister Illia and their foster father William for company, Volke has dreamed of becoming someone important, someone with the power to help folks and show the world he is better than his parents. Despite plenty of difficulties early on, Volke shows he possesses the heart of a true hero. That, or a really kickass best friend/foster sister in the face of the aforementioned Illia, who is such a great, fun character–and she’s far from the only one. The whole cast was exemplary, and I quite enjoyed following their individual relationships with Volke shift and change.

It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Volke succeeds in finding a magical beast to bond with; the book isn’t called Knightmare Gravekeeper, awesome as that title is. Volke and his sister, as well as a pair of other young arcanists from the same island as our ex-gravediggers all join in the guild of Volke’s childhood hero, Gregory Ruma.

More than anything, this book reminded me of an anime, an old favourite of mine by the name of Fairy Tail. What called that comparison to mind are the guilds full of magicians arcanists who go out adventuring into the world.

My single issue is, the climax is a little too fast, a little too neat. Considering the danger Volke and his fellow arcanist apprentices face, I would’ve hoped for a slightly longer action scene–which is not to say the one we got wasn’t entertaining.

The cover is quite the beauty, however.

A few threads are left very much left open and to be resolved in the sequel — a few budding relationships, a few hints at romance, the future of all six of our promising arcanists. I might be annoyed in another novel, but any sequel baiting Knightmare Arcanist engages in is wholly successful. I want to read on — I’m eager to, in fact!

Catch-22 by Joseph Heller—Book Review

I finished Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 many months ago — I’ve kept pushing the review further and further off because this is one of the classics, it’s loved by many, disliked by some, downright hated by a chosen few. I find myself decidedly in the camp of the first, as this novel illustrated the absurdism of war through examples that will have you either grasping at your sides with laughter or blinking slowly, trying to comprehend what the hell just happened.

It is a difficult book to penetrate, at first. Heller thinks little of chronology, the structure of his chapters a mess that is at once brilliant and confounding; the opening begins in media res, with Yossarian pretending to be both sick and crazy for who-knows-which time. Unafraid to hop from one character’s circumstances to another, Heller uses an omniscient narrator to sketch out the daily life of the soldiers of the U.S. Air Army. He does so in a way that extends to far more than just these characters, encompassing the entirety of the army, of any army, even of every army. The objections to war, after all, should not be examined in a case-by-case basis.

Once you become acquainted with the military and its maddening mechanisms, Heller’s thesis statement begins to fall into place:

There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn’t, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them he was crazy and didn’t have to; but if he didn’t want to he was sane and had to. Yossarian was moved very deeply by the absolute simplicity of this clause of Catch-22 and let out a respectful whistle.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” he observed.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka agreed.

Ironic, isn’t it? This circularity is the bread and butter of so much of Heller’s seminal work, and though other examples of this never failed to garner a laugh, chortle or chuckle from me, these became ever more histeric as I continued my sixteen-hour journey across a text that is increasingly pessimistic about the nature of modern society in all its paradoxic, violent and capitalistic glory.

There is something of a postmodernist precursor to this book, something that so well captures the pulse of a movement that was just beginning to arise in the sixties (Catch-22 was published in 1961) that you can’t help but applaud Heller for taking the measure of so much of the postmodernist essence:

It was miraculous. It was almost no trick at all, he saw, to turn vice into virtue and slander into truth, impotence into abstinence, arrogance into humility, plunder into philanthropy, thievery into honor, blasphemy into wisdom, brutality into patriotism, and sadism into justice. Anybody could do it; it required no brains at all. It merely required no character.

This codifies so much of my experience with postmodernism!…And the distance from this to Angela Carter isn’t that much of a stretch, is it?

I listened to Catch-22 as narrated by Trevor White whose reading brought the characters to life and made the dialogue jump off the page. I recommend you give that particular audiobook a listen — it’s well-worth the Audible credit!

And, before I close this review off, may I say that Milo Minderbinder is one of the most brilliant characters used to satirize capitalism and the notion of free market, ever? The Mess Officer of the Air Force base that most of the book is set up at, is the beating heart of a pyramid scheme that puts all others to shame; Milo is a hell of a guy, and he’s almost as funny as he is scary.

I could write about Catch-22‘s insane cast for days, but alas, I’ve got plenty of other reviews to write. This is one I’ll be coming back to, reading and rereading, and something tells me no two reads will be the same. Just writing this review is enough to fill me with excitement over the possibility of experiencing the narrative Joseph Heller constructed with such impeccable care. If you’ve heard that this is one of the finest novels of the 20th century…well, you’ve heard right.

The Faith Machine by Tone Milazzo — Book Review (Storytellers On Tour)

The Faith Machine is one of the strangest, most bizarre books I’ve read in recent memory, and no less fun for it. With spies, psychic abilities, tons of action and betrayal, Milazzo’s novel channels Cold War thrillers mixed with almost Marvel-scale superpowers in a juggling act that was consistently entertaining throughout!

Where shall I begin? This novel follows a three-act structure, the first taking place in Africa, the second in America, and the third in North Korea; each one takes about a hundred-and-something pages of this 392-page novel, and each has enough going on to make for its own tiny novella, if the author had so chosen.

There are plenty of laughs to be had in The Faith Machine, based on all kinds of hilarious situations and exchanges between characters, as well as plenty of pop references. The novel is hilarious enough to make you forget all about the fact that this is an “ESPionage” story, unafraid to pull its punches, willing to go in some dark, disturbing places. Some of the imagery is downright shocking, and the trials some of the character

And the characters are a likable lot, all eight of the ensemble. There’s Dr. Park, the leader of the team, a Korean-American psychologist tasked wtih the enormous responsibility of keeping seven Cards (psychic spies), unstable one and all, together, as they . I won’t go over each and every one of the Cards, but I thought they made for wonderful characters. They’re bursting with personality from the very first time you come across them on the page:

A dusky young woman in an AC/DC belly shirt came running down the drive, swinging an ax after a man in a dirty T-shirt and boxers. “Jacob! I told you I didn’t wanna be on the internet!” Her unkempt brown hair bounced with her wild gait as she closed in.
Gabby stopped trying to kill Jacob whe she sawPark and Ainia. “Oh, hi, Park! What are you doin’ here?” She let the ax hit the ground.

Few things better than ax-wielding ladies in AC/DC shirts, I always say. I appreciate how divergant the cast is — these are folks from all walks of life, and the author does an admirable job of giving them unique, nuanced voices. For the most part — occasionally, a line read across as unpolished or as the author’s unbridled commentary, but that was a very, very rare occurance indeed! Further, I would’ve liked some more time spent with the leader of the ensemble, Dr. Park, whose last stretch of development I can’t help but feel didn’t conclude so much as stop in place.

The twists and turns are a delight — so many red herrings, very well executed. I did sense the last big twist coming, but a few of the smaller ones along the way blindsided me, which is something I am all for!

I admired the prose — it nails that pulpy feel of Cold War-era spy thrillers. The style is clear, exact, always directing the reader into any given scene with precision.

I will say, I’m glad I did not read the entire blurb on Goodreads before I picked this one up, because it spoils the first third of the novel. Bit of a strange choice, that.

My score for The Faith Machine is 4/5 stars! It had some elements I wasn’t sold on, but make no mistake, this is a solid sci-fi thriller, one well-worth your time.

Catalyst by Tracy Richardson – Book Review (Ultimate Blog Tour)

DNF’d at 45%.

Catalyst is one of those rare books that I just couldn’t continue on with — I found very little that worked for me in this piece of paranormal disaster fiction.

The prose is servicable — neither complex nor beautiful, it does provide crisp, clear description of what is going on, of who is speaking to whom, and of any details that need the reader’s attention drawn. The main characters are teenagers and university students, all of whom have individual traits but all, except one, have the same ideological background and share in each other’s beliefs to such an extent that I often found myself unsure which character corresponded to which name tag. I cannot, for the life of me, picture how any of them look — which speaks to me of descriptions that lacked that extra something that makes characters memorable and easy to visualize. The dialogue was good — it wasn’t stilted, the conversations were written well and the back-and-forth was believable.

I didn’t like the protagonist — her point of view failed to suck me in, I found her inner monologue hard to believe and, frankly, obnoxious.

Now, about the environmental issue at hand here, and how it is discussed. I’ve been reading a lot of climate change/disaster fiction of late — just yesterday, I wrapped up a Disaster Studies course at uni, and I’ve realised there are two kinds of disaster fiction books. The first makes its points with eloquence and style, introduces not just one side of a given argument but both of them, and offers a weighed argument towards the dangers of climate change and humanity’s central part in causing it — one example that does admirable job at it is Flight Behaviour by Barbara Kingsolver.

The second beats you over the head with its messaging, without bothering to dig in real deep in what drives the everyday proponents of fracking in the USA. Yes, one of the characters talks non-stop about how fracking “will make America energy sufficient and get those Arab Muslims off our back” or something along those lines, but that’s surface-level reasoning; the author could’ve, should have, dug further into the other side’s argument. And hey, maybe she did — there’s over a hundred pages left of this book, but those are pages I won’t ever read. From what I did read, Catalyst leans more heavily towards this second kind of disaster fiction than towards the first.

There’s little of substance here — not the kind of substance that could make someone who does not believe in the environmental dangers of fracking to buy into them. A book like Catalyst seems to alienate precisely the people who most need to be convinced of the massive environmental dangers of fracking, and that is a shame.

Maybe you’ll like it — if you enjoy talk about the Fifth Dimension and living energy that can be created through meditation and communion with nature. Perhaps you’ll like the characters, or you won’t take the same issues I did with the environmental issues and how they were covered. For me, however, this just did not work. My score for Catalyst is 2 out of 5 stars.