Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett / *****

goodomens-hard-2006It’s been more than a decade since I last read Good Omens (full title: Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch), the collaboration between Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Since then, I’ve come to know and deeply love the work of Terry Pratchett, and I’ve become more familiar with the work of Neil Gaiman (who, at the time I last read Good Omens, had only had a couple of novels published). That’s made it a perfect excuse to revisit the book, and see how it holds up as a work by two of my favorite writers.

The answer: it holds up perfectly and then some, representing some wonderful union of the best of each author’s sensibilities, and creating something wonderful in the process.

Nominally, Good Omens is the story of the Apocalypse, brought about by the birth of the Antichrist. But, in typical Pratchett style, from the get-go, there are reversals and oddities, from the way that the Antichrist is raised by a family who doesn’t know what their child is and simply raises him normally to the way the book follows an angel and demon as they attempt to prevent all of this from happening. And through it all, Gaiman fleshes out the mythology and imagination of the piece, playing off of Pratchett’s wry social commentary and gleeful silliness.

The result is, first of all, laugh-out-loud, consistently, constantly hilarious, from page one until the end. From a hellhound trapped in the form of a little dog to four bikers who nominate themselves as the followers of the four true Horsemen of the Apocalypse (bikers who have given themselves names like Grievous Bodily Harm, Really Cool People, Things Not Working Even When You’ve Given Them a Good Thumping, and more), from the wonderful banter between a group of children to the running gag about how every cassette left in a car gradually turns into Queen’s Greatest Hits, Pratchett and Gaiman stuff the book with jokes and silliness, ranging from the profound to the absurd and childish. (My favorite throwaway gag involves a group of ducks that’s uniquely attuned to international politics because of all the “covert” meetings that happen at their pond.)

But what makes Good Omens great isn’t the sly parodies of The Omen or the wonderful silliness. No, what makes it great is what makes so many Pratchett (and Gaiman, to a different extent) books great: the way it uses the plot to get to something more meaningful and profound. What begins as a book about the end of the world becomes a study of human frailty (the demon Crowley’s thoughts about how human nature trumps anything he can ever come up with ring as true today as they did when the novel was first written), but also what makes life worth living. As with so many books by these two, the final confrontation doesn’t come down to an action sequence – it comes down to ideas, to optimism (or hope, perhaps) in the face of defeat and cynicism. That’s something both men have always been fascinated by, and always brought out in their work – that the world, and people, are so often horrible, and yet there is something magical and essential about life that’s impossible to ignore. That Good Omens turns that into the text of the novel is what gives is a surprising punch that hits home, even more than any scene of Crowley driving his rapidly disintegrating car or enjoying (what I assume is Gaiman’s work) the novel’s inspired modernization of the Horsemen of the Apocalypse (and, in one case, one that has never changed, and never will).

It truly is the best case scenario for a collaboration – something that brings out the best aspects in both authors and plays them off of each other, creating something that feels like both of their work and yet feels totally of its own piece. It’s funny, it’s imaginative, it’s profound, and it makes you feel better about the world, even while we recognize the pain of it all. In other words, it’s typically brilliant Pratchett and Gaiman in every way.




Mr. Splitfoot, by Samantha Hunt / **

23719481Mr. Splitfoot really should work for me. Unfolding across two time periods, it follows two halves of the story of Ruth, an orphan raised in a group home by a religious cult leader. In the first story, we follow Ruth and her closest friend, a young man named Nat, as they attempt to survive their bizarre childhood and find themselves falling in with a traveling con man who spies Nat’s “communing with the dead”; in the second, a much older Ruth visits her niece Cora, who’s single, pregnant, and questioning her place in the world, and decides to follow a strangely silent Ruth on a long walking journey to…well, somewhere, right?

Con artists, religious cults, doomsday prophets, and ghost stories – all of it should add up to a book I loved. Instead, Mr. Splitfoot was an absolute slog for me, losing its way in overwritten and turgid prose more interested in showing off than in conveying a story, confusing “cryptic” for “interesting”, and never realizing that it takes a certain kind of story to handle a lack of clear answers, and this sure isn’t one.

Much of the blame for that has to be laid at the feet of the Ruth and Cora story, whose tedium really can’t be overstated for me; while the initial mystery is intriguing (where are they going? Why won’t Ruth talk?), the story feels like it’s spinning its wheels waiting on the point where it can intersect with the other plot thread, and so instead we get chapter after chapter after chapter of the characters walking and Cora thinking to herself. Which, in of itself, might not be a bad thing, but Hunt never brings much interesting to the table in these sequences, and at a certain point, the big reveals she has at the end of the story are so weak and pointless that they can’t justify the wait to get there.

But even the section of the book that follows Ruth in her childhood falls flat ultimately, as the plot gets more and more ludicrous and twisty, robbing it of its pleasures. Setting aside Hunt’s showy writing, the group home material is at least engaging, if eye-rollingly Gothic at times. And as the con man surrogate father enters the book, there’s a sense that at least we’re going somewhere fun. But, alas, that’s not meant to be, as things get silly once again by the end and Hunt’s convoluted story starts doubling back on itself.

Mr. Splitfoot feels like a Gothic ghost story that’s embarrassed to admit that it’s a genre piece, and so it gussies itself up with overwrought prose and leaves enigmas aplenty so as to feel “literary”. But the enigmas aren’t thought-provoking; they’re tedious and annoying. And the prose is never engaging or rich; it’s just distracting and forced. It all adds up to a slog on just about every level.


Two horror shorts by Jason Arnopp

A few months back, I read – and thoroughly enjoyed – Jason Arnopp’s The Last Days of Jack Sparks, a fiendishly clever and twisted piece of unreliable narration that tells of the title character’s last days, in a posthumously edited manuscript that…well, it’s hard to explain. The short version is, Jack Sparks gripped me from the get-go, creating a rich world all through a compelling narrator’s voice, then plunging me into a twisty, unpredictable, bizarre story of ghosts, haunting, and the supernatural. So, finding out that Arnopp had not one but two short pieces available for incredibly low prices online, I wanted to check them out and see if Arnopp was a one-trick pony or not.

51kdfssa4ilBased off of A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home, the answer is definitely not. Taking the form of an anonymous letter written to a new homeowner, the letter tells the story of the home’s previous occupant, who came to realize that they were feeling less and less well-rested the longer they lived in the house. And then, there’s the night she wakes up in the middle of the night and understands why. Entirely crafted in the second person, A Sincere Warning features so much of what made Jack Sparks so great – great, unsettling horror, yes, but also a wonderfully complicated narrator whose voice tells you more about them than any exposition ever could (and who begins to reveal more and more the longer the letter continues), written with supreme control and a wonderfully natural feel. The second-person narration works better than you’d think, adding to the unease, but really, this one is a testament to how good Arnopp is as a natural writer of dialogue, making it all feel real and plausible. It’s slight, sure, but that comes along with the tight length, and really, it’s hard to argue that adding more would have made it any better. Still, it means it’s a bit of a popcorn read – it’s just a good one. (Also, apparently you can have the story sent as an anonymous letter to a friend, which sounds like an amazing idea.) Rating: **** ½

28961798But once I finished A Sincere Warning, I found that Arnopp offered a free novella for signing up for his newsletter. As a result, not long after, I found myself reading American Hoarder, which finds an unnamed narrator discussing the fabled “lost episode” of the titular reality TV show. You can guess from the title what kind of show this is, and Arnopp has a lot of fun giving us the perspective of a jaded, long-suffering professional on shows like these, with discussions about the ideal arc of the show (initial help leads to first effort, which has to relapse, which has to try to redeem), the best houses, the most disturbing collections, and so forth. But we know, given the nature of most of Arnopp’s work, where this is going – and it won’t be pretty. Hoarder doesn’t work quite as well as Warning does – the horror here feels a little more abstract, and the ending of the story doesn’t really give a great final sting so much as it feels a little confusing. (The ending of the main story, anyways; there’s a nice little stinger that will appeal to fans of Jack Sparks.) Nonetheless, I still enjoyed American Hoarder; once again, Arnopp’s knack for bringing voices to life is really great, and how much he’s able to really build not only this character, but the whole setting of the story, in such a short time makes for a solid read. It’s not his best, but it’s still a good story, and the writing is so enjoyable that I’m fine with some of the weaker plotting. Rating: ****

A Sincere Warning about the Entity in Your Home (Amazon) | American Hoarder (

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet, by Ta-Nehisi Coates / *****

blackpantherEven as a somewhat enthusiastic comic book reader growing up, I hadn’t ever been exposed much to Black Panther (my preferred series was X-Men). But even before the character’s recent explosion of popularity thanks to the Ryan Coogler film, Black Panther was getting back on my radar thanks to the hiring of author, journalist, educator, and all around brilliant and fascinating person Ta-Nehisi Coates to write an arc for the series. Entitles A Nation Under Our Feet, the arc took place after some major Marvel event or another, following T’Challa as he returns to Wakanda and struggles with his place in this nation as a sovereign king in a world that’s pushing toward democracy, trying to understand the balance between self and country, and trying to admit his failures as a leader as he’s been caught up in global struggles to the detriment of his own country.

That’s all fairly heady fare for a novel, much less for a comic book series, but luckily, Coates pulls it off and then some, juggling these dense themes with solid action and fast plotting, all while somehow never shortchanging the complexity of his ideas. And let’s be honest – there’s a lot going on here, from an internal rebellion led by a mysterious pair of revolutionaries who seem to be able to tap into the buried resentments of the people to the defection of T’Challa’s personal guard of female warriors, from an outspoken political professor to the living coma state of T’Challa’s sister, Shuri. Coates juggles his plot threads effortlessly, tying them all together in deeply satisfying ways, and never leaving the reader confused or lost (apart from some brief “I’m tossing you in, and you’ll learn to swim” issues in the first few pages). But more importantly, he gives the dialogue and the debate every bit the weight as he does his action – maybe more so – letting the characters discuss issues ranging from the effect of losing a homeland to the nature of power, from the appeal of tyranny to the importance of staying true to one’s self even when one is a leader. Coates has written a comic book that’s both action story and complex rumination on how to be a leader, and that’s no small feat.

61fawp5jwelAnd yet, it also doesn’t convey just how exciting and gripping A Nation Under Our Feet is to read. If all of what I just said makes this sound dry and academic, it shouldn’t; Coates is a deep comic aficionado, and from the long-dormant canon pulls to his love of a good throwdown, he keeps the comic moving like a rocket, pulling you along just in time to leave you dangling for the next issue. (I owned all three collected volumes of the series, but ever since I saw some thoughts about issue-oriented plotting, I tried to take a short break between each issue of the story.) And he’s aided in this by incredible illustration work from Brian Stelfreeze (books one and three) and Chris Sprouse (book two), bringing to life Wakanda’s afrofuturistic look and immersing us in it, letting the illustrations remind us of the power dynamics at play, or the subtle ways that a face can reflect feeling. The combination of Coates’ plotting and the masterful illustrations bring the world to life, letting the stories often unfold on a physical level of battle and conflict, all while the narration reveals very different thoughts.

(Side note: this was the first time I ever read using comiXology’s “Guided View”, in which comic artists and experts map out the physical page as a series of panels, setting up a way that, when you’re reading on a device like an iPad, you slide between the panels, zoom in to reveal details, crash zoom out to expand the view dramatically, and all kinds of cool stuff. It made for an incredible read – it never once took away from the impact of the art or dialogue, and in fact, made it easier to slow down and take in the rich illustrations and savor the words in a way that I don’t always do with physical or full-page comics. I was a huge fan of it, and plan on reading many more comics in the same way.)

All in all, A Nation Under Our Feet is a masterpiece – it’s not just a great superhero comic, but a fascinating and complex look at power, responsibility, politics, heritage, and so much more. From gender inequality to the African diaspora, from the divine right of kings to civil unrest, Coates incorporates all of it into a rich, satisfying story that works both as comic book excitement and thoughtful debate. I’m glad I read it, and am only really sad that it’s already over.

Amazon: Volume 1 | Volume 2 | Volume 3

The Warren, by Brian Evenson / *****

30199444I’m a huge fan of Brian Evenson, an author whose works I find unsettling, thought-provoking, unconventional, and incredibly well-written in a way that’s hard to convey. At times coming across like some weird fusion of Edgar Allan Poe, Cormac McCarthy, and Gene Wolfe (to whom this novella is dedicated, which makes sense, given the massive unreliability of our narrator(s)), Evenson writes genre fiction full of fractured protagonists who don’t always understand themselves, grappling with themes of identity, morality, and religion, all while following his dark stories to their inevitable conclusions. More importantly, he’s not interested in holding the reader’s hand; Evenson is an author who immerses you in his characters’ heads deeply, only giving us the limited scope of the world that they can perceive, and expecting his reader to engage with the text to think about what’s happening and character motivations.

All of that comes together beautifully in The Warren, a tight science-fiction novella following a confused survivor named X and set in a post-apocalyptic world whose nature only gradually becomes clear. (Fans of Evenson’s might feel like there are connections to his previous novel Immobility, though reading that book isn’t necessary to appreciate The Warren.) But really, The Warren isn’t about its world so much as it is about its protagonist – or, should I say, protagonists. Because what becomes very evident, very quickly, is that despite his thought that he’s the last surviving member of his kind – and what kind that is, exactly, remains open to debate – there must be someone else alive in this world, because things keep happening that he doesn’t remember doing.

The exact nature of what’s going on with X doesn’t take long to become clear, but it’s worth experiencing it cold, the way Evenson intended, because only then can you start to realize just how meticulously crafted and careful the narration of this book is. Written with Evenson’s usual masterful, stark prose, The Warren makes its debt to Gene Wolfe clear, giving us a narrator who is massively unreliable on multiple fronts, not all of them in his own control. But despite these elements of confusion, what’s in doubt isn’t the plot or what’s going on, but rather, what it all means. Evenson uses the character’s existential confusion to address any number of issues – the nature of consciousness, what it means to be a “human” or a “person,” the construction of an identity – and plays with them in fascinating, thoughtful ways.

The Warren won’t be for all tastes; Evenson has never been an author who’s interested in answers and spelling things out, and even by those standards, The Warren is cryptic, giving you just enough to draw you in and leave you thinking, but never offering much concrete or decisive. If you’re fine with that, you’ll love this; for me, I admire the book’s refusal to give easy answers to questions that have no answers to them. And with Evenson’s crystalline prose, his complex characters, and the compelling confusion of his story, what you have is a knockout of a little novella that’s deeply satisfying for those who are up for its uncertainties.


The Devourers, by Indra Das / **** ½

27245999One of my all-time favorite short stories is a Neil Gaiman tale named “Murder Mysteries”. It’s the story of a young man who’s out partying in Los Angeles, but gradually feels more and more disconnected from the hedonistic world around him. One night, as he wanders through the city, he meets a homeless man who asks for a cigarette, and after being given one, repays the favor by telling a story – the story of the first killing in Heaven. It’s a wondrous tale for so many reasons, but much of why I love it is the storytelling aspect of it – the way that the entire short story is both a story in of itself and a testament to the power of tales, to the way we impose narrative on the world in an effort to make sense of it. And what’s more, how so often, what a tale says is less important than how the listener receives it.

I found myself thinking of “Murder Mysteries” (and Gaiman’s work in general, sometimes) often as I read Indra Das’s The Devourers, an unclassifiable piece of genre fare that presents itself as a werewolf story, but has far, far more on its mind than just a simple horror story. It opens, in India, in a similar way to “Murder Mysteries,” with a stranger offering our protagonist – a lonely academic – some stories in exchange for some company. But as the stories come to sudden, explosive life in the mind of our academic – and as the stranger tries to explain that he is, more or less, a werewolf (at least, that’s the most understandable way he could explain it), it becomes clear that we are not in the normal world anymore. And then, our “werewolf” offers the academic a scroll that he needs translated, with no explanation or context.

What unfolds from there is fascinating, as we read the scroll’s account of life as a werewolf – our narrator? a friend of his? someone else entirely? – presented entirely through the shapeshifter’s perspective. We get a sense of how long this being has existed; how inaccurate the label “werewolf” may be in capturing the scope and power of this entity; we see how they relate (or not) to humankind; and we see the way he justifies even his most repellent actions, all as filtered through his grappling with a sense of purpose and meaning in his life. Meanwhile, our academic provides context to some of the notes, footnoting unfamiliar terms, and leading us to think about what all of this means – and ultimately reminding us that we, like the academic, are struggling to figure out how this connects to the stranger we’ve met already.

The Devourers continues to evolve in its second half, with the introduction of another scroll that complicates the first, and manages somehow to sustain two full narratives – the ancient (?) tale of the scrolls and the growing contemporary connection between the academic and the shapeshifter. Interweaving Indian history, world religions, and more, Das brings both halves of the story to rich life, with every character growing in complexity and nuance as the tale evolves into something unclassifiable. At times, it’s a “urban” fantasy novel (if one could be set in the pre-urban days as the Taj Mahal was being built); at times, it’s a horror story; and at its core, it may even be a romance. That Das doesn’t care about what kind of story it is, and indeed, lets each half underline and emphasize the other, makes The Devourers all the more remarkable and compelling, as he treats his fantastic elements with emotional weight and heft, investing himself as much in his characters as in his conceits, and bringing to vibrant life both temporal versions of India.

I couldn’t help but think of Gaiman frequently as I read The Devourers, but that’s not a bad thing; Das feels like an author inspired by Gaiman’s magical realism and fantastic but grounded worlds, and yet also feels like no one other than himself. Creating a fantastic world somewhere between “Murder Mysteries” and The Time Traveler’s WifeThe Devourers is rich, compelling, heartbreaking, and more beautiful and optimistic than you may think from its early going. If it doesn’t quite stick the landing, that’s understandable, to me; this is one of those cases where the journey is so satisfying that I can forgive the destination for not quite clicking as much as I wish it did. As for the rest of the book, it’s beautifully written, lushly imagined, and incredibly thoughtful and satisfying – and ultimately, surprisingly moving.


Only You Can Save Mankind, by Terry Pratchett / ****

9f2e49_f831ea71d494476e89a45cfcc5ee521amv2Anyone who’s read through my book reviews knows of my deep and abiding love for Terry Pratchett, a man who I genuinely feel was one of the great authors of the 20th century. Mixing comedy and social commentary, deep meditations on humanity and wild silliness, Pratchett was something special – a man who could mix seemingly light plotting with devastating insight, and whose brisk, rich writing style could sneak up on you when you least expected it. And though I’ve read almost all of Sir Pratchett’s bibliography, I hadn’t been able to check out the Johnny Maxwell trilogy until recently.

Only You Can Save Mankind, the first volume in that trilogy, automatically sets itself apart from almost all Pratchett by being set entirely in the modern world. There are fantastic elements, yes, but there’s no magic, no nomes wandering beneath the feet of men. No, instead, there’s Johnny, very much the kind of kid we all knew in high school – not quite an outcast, but certainly not popular; the kind of kid who just wanted to be unnoticed and ignored, mostly. And in the glimpses we get of Johnny’s homelife, that’s understandable; the “Trying Times” we see make Johnny’s home feel acutely familiar to any child of divorce who remembers how bad things could be at times. More than that, Pratchett gives us glimpses of poverty, of racial concerns, and of class strata more carefully – and, in some ways, more explicitly, given the lack of fantastical metaphors – than he’s ever done before, filtering it all through a child who’s too young to understand all of it yet, but is being forced to anyway.

If that all sounds a bit darker than the usual Pratchett fare, well, it is. That’s not to say that some of Pratchett’s usual clever wordplay and light language doesn’t make its way in there, nor some clever dialogue. But in many ways, Only You Can Save Mankind feels like a very different book, one that’s more cynical and more uncertain as to where we’re going as a species. It’s a book set against the backdrop of Desert Storm, where the war has been turned into TV highlights and students complain that the war gets boring to watch unless there’s good action. That background helps to shine a light on the intent behind the main plot, in which Johnny finds himself drawn into a Galaga/Space Invaders-style video game to help the aliens survive, because they can handle no more slaughtering at the hands of humans who find war to only be an entertaining game.

That idea automatically gives Mankind some weight and heft that you might not expect, with children dealing with the concept of death and warfare, and trying to understand how being distanced from the consequences can change your perspective. And this is not Pratchett scolding video games; rather, this is undeniably (and sometimes too overtly) a book about media and war, and one clearly inspired by the war that’s playing out in the background of the novel. Luckily, in Pratchett’s capable hands, the book still plays out as a fun adventure novel, but there’s little denying that the undercurrents here are dark and thoughtful. Is it still a great book? In many ways, yes, but it’s definitely missing some of the effortless grace and careful construction (to say nothing of the more subtle use of themes) of Pratchett’s best novels. Then again, it’s still a Terry Pratchett book, and you know that means it’s almost definitely worth reading no matter what; it’s just not among the top tier of his works.