What with one thing and another lately (mainly it being the end of the school year, which results in a hectic time for me), I realized today I’ve been letting some of my recent reads pile up without having been reviewed. So, today, let me go over four books I’ve read in the past week or so – three copies provided for review, and one for class purposes.
The Halloween Children, a collaboration between Brian James Freeman and Norman Prentiss due out in June, boasts a pretty great structure, and for about 90% of its length, that structure and the unfolding dread of the book will keep you hooked. It’s the story of what happened one Halloween at a suburban apartment complex, with the tale told by two different narrators: a husband and wife duo, writing at two different times. The husband seems to be writing after all of this happened; meanwhile, the wife’s narration is as everything unfolds, in the form of monologues to a marriage counselor. To say the marriage is dysfunctional would be an understatement; there are power games between the two of them, distrust, and favorites between the children (split along gender lines). But through it all, Freeman and Prentiss keep the tension raising, leaving us wondering how these parents are unable to see how wrong and strange things are getting with their children – and in the complex as a whole. And all of it is intriguing and weird, playing like a horror variation on Gone Girl, where we’re not sure which, if either, of our narrators is reliable – that is, until the ending, when everything comes apart. Without getting into spoilers, The Halloween Children ends up throwing both of our narrators under the bus, leaving us unsure whether much of anything happened, before bluntly spelling out a ham-fisted moral and lecturing the reader. It’s a fizzle of an ending, which is a shame, because it’s an engaging, fast read up until that point. Rating: ***
Dean F. Wilson has become a reliable presence in my review book rotation, and a welcome one; over the past couple of years, I devoured his Great Iron War, finding myself swept up in the rich world that he created. So when Wilson offered me a chance to check out his fantasy series, it wasn’t much of a choice for me – I knew I was on board. Nonetheless, I think I was surprised and deeply impressed by The Call of Agon, which is the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Telm trilogy. This is high fantasy in a Tolkien vein, make no mistake about it; there are epic poems, old legends, numerous races, and dialogue – and narration – that can feel stilted, even archaic, until you get into the rhythms. And yet, once again, Wilson mixes well his world-building and his character work, populating an astonishingly complex and rich fantasy world with interesting characters who veer from their archetypal nature slowly but inexorably. The Call of Agon can feel slow and dense at times, and I can’t say that there weren’t a couple of times that I felt a little overwhelmed with the world-building, the history, and some of the speechifying going on with some of the characters. And yet, the story hooked me in, giving me interesting, flawed characters that I found intriguing, and letting its fantastical epic play out in unexpected, interesting ways that broke from convention appealingly. The Call of Agon may be almost too high fantasy for its own good, but none of that detracts from the incredible world-building, the great character work, and the compelling story that draws you in. And once again, Dean F. Wilson has hooked me in. Rating: ****
Sometimes, a gamble on a review copy pays off. Such is the case with Ray Else’s Our Only Chance: An A.I. Chronicle, a book whose description intrigued me enough to check it out. It’s the story of the first true A.I., an entity named Einna. Programmed by a brilliant young woman named Manaka, Einna is a technological breakthrough, but her creation raises any number of questions, ranging from the practical (is there a difference in Einnas if we duplicate the program?) to the metaphysical (does Einna have a soul?). Else’s novel navigates these questions ably and adroitly, tying them into the plot, which involves not only Einna’s evolution as a thinking creation, but the shady Yakuza ties that give the business the money it needed to get started. When I requested Our Only Chance, that Yakuza element made me think that I was getting something more cyberpunk than I got; nonetheless, Our Only Chance won me over surprisingly quickly, letting its story develop and raising fascinating questions without ever becoming preachy or didactic. Instead, Else follows Einna’s quest for self-actualization and lets it dictate the novel’s ideas and thoughts, letting the questions feel organic but no less thoughtfully approached. Indeed, that Yakuza element ends up being the one distracting element of the book, turning the ending into something a little more disappointing than it otherwise would be (without getting into spoiler territory, it turns the book’s final philosophical question into a moral one; moreover, it weighs the scales so heavily that it becomes not even a debate). Still, it’s rich fare, and if it feels like it could use a little more fleshing out, well, that’s to the book’s credit – not enough books leave you feeling like there’s more to say. Rating: ****
Finally, thanks to my recent class curriculum, I’ve been covering Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, and it led me to be curious about Huxley’s follow-up, Brave New World Revisited (available for free at huxley.net). A series of essays written over 25 years after the initial publication of Brave New World, Revisited finds Huxley looking at his novel and assessing how accurate he was. His basic thesis? If anything, Brave New World was optimistic in thinking it would take us a few hundred years to get to that point; to the Huxley of Revisited, we’ll be there within decades. Revisited isn’t a novel, and it isn’t interested in being easily accessible; this is political theory, biological discussion, historical analysis, and more, all filtered through Huxley’s unique perspective. Revisited finds Huxley comparing his novel to Orwell’s 1984, discussing how Hitler and Stalin both change – and fail to change – some of his original ideas, noting the growth in advertising and television jingles, and just generally realizing that time has only made Brave New World more and more relevant. Sadly, the same applies to a modern reader, who will find some pain in Huxley’s comments about the perils of democracy being open to manipulation by sound bites and emotional bias, the willingness of people to be distracted by fleeting entertainments while real problems go unaddressed, and the unease of a society to ever be questioned. Yes, some of Huxley’s issues are out of date – he remains preoccupied with subliminal and hypnopaedic teachings, neither of which ever proved successful or worth continuing. But that goes for surprisingly little of this book, which instead draws out much of what makes Brave New World so uncomfortably relevant, allows Huxley’s brilliant and odd mind to shine through, and leaves you uncomfortable and disquieted about the state of the world. A compelling, powerful companion piece to a depressingly relevant novel. Rating: *****