The Subtle Knife, by Philip Pullman / *****

efbc574d33807f47c01eaac2124374c8Middle books are infamously difficult. They lack the originality of the first novel, but the satisfaction of the finale; they often are piece-setting books, a chance to get things in place for the final volume. And yet, every so often, you get a middle volume that’s every bit the equal of its predecessor – and such is the case with The Subtle Knife, which follows The Golden Compass in a way that both expands on the original’s world and builds on it, continuing the story while still somehow feeling like its own unique entry in the series.

Much of that comes from the decision to, at first, make The Subtle Knife entirely disconnected from the first entry. We don’t open on the cliffhanger on which we left; we don’t even open on Lyra, or her world, at all. Instead, we open on our world, with a new protagonist: a boy named Will, who has been desperately trying to cover up for his mother’s mental illness, only to discover that there might actually be men out to get her. It doesn’t take long for things to get out of hand, putting Will on the run and on a collision course with Lyra, as the two start finding gateways and windows between worlds. Meanwhile, back in Lyra’s world, Lord Asriel’s plan to do nothing short of battling God is coming together, with Lady Coulter still serving as the wild card in the mix.

In short, then, a lot happens in The Subtle Knife, which moves every bit as fast as The Golden Compass but takes on even more, diving between worlds, moving in and out of world-building, and taking on scientific concepts like dark matter and theological questions such as the nature of Original Sin. All of which could easily sink a lesser book, but somehow, Pullman juggles it all successfully, investing us in the characters and their plight first, and using his philosophical underpinnings as a way to drive the story, while never making them feel tacked on or thoughtless.

It also ends up making the series fairly weighty fare for its YA audience, but in a way that the best YA books manage, addressing its ideas thoughtfully but never condescendingly, explaining them in clear ways that never feel as though the author is talking down to his readers. Yes, by The Subtle Knife it becomes clear that Pullman’s idea of writing the anti-Narnia is more complicated than we might have expected; instead of simply arguing that there is no God, Pullman is grappling with the philosophical and theological assumptions of Christianity (and Catholicism in particular), arguing as much with the execution of the Church as the idea of it. That’s a fascinating take on things, and makes the series more than a simple atheist screed; instead, it works as a coming-of-age story that questions a belief system in thoughtful ways.

Mind you, if the book was simply a theological argument, it wouldn’t be this fun to read. And yet, again, on this front, Pullman succeeds wildly, pulling out action sequences, diving into the world of the polar bears, building to a massive war, cranking up the suspense, and delivering plot reveals that will drop your jaw. It really is easy to forget just what an incredible accomplishment this series is, and just how engaging, fun, exciting, and compelling it all is – and the fact that it’s not just surface sheen, but something richer, is even better. In short, it’s every bit as good as The Golden Compass, and maybe even better – and that’s no small feat.

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The Golden Compass, by Philip Pullman / *****

Screenshot 2017-12-06 09.41.45I first read The Golden Compass (known originally in Great Britain as Northern Lights, but retitled for its American release) in college, for a course in children’s and adolescent literature, and I was immediately swept up into Philip Pullman’s incredible, imaginative, astonishing world. I didn’t know anything about the series – not the controversy that it had attracted, not Pullman’s goal of making a children’s series that served as a response to C.S. Lewis’s allegorical Narnia novels, not even how many books the series would be. All I knew is that I loved this world, these characters, and the imagination on display, and before I had even finished the novel, I rushed out to the bookstore and bought the concluding two volumes in the series (wonderfully, I was assigned the book right after the long wait for volume three finally ended).

Now, with the release of a new book in this world (The Book of Dust, which I’m beyond excited to read), I decided to revisit Pullman’s trilogy, to see if it held up as well as I remember, and to focus as much on the craft and themes this time as I did the story on my first readthrough. And here’s the good news: The Golden Compass is even better than I remember, telling its original, unpredictable story with style and grace, creating a book that’s undoubtedly for young audiences without ever being condescending, and yet packed with enough nuance and thought to be satisfying for any adult reader. (In some ways, it’s the original Pixar film that way.) It’s exciting, funny, graceful, thoughtful, original, and just a pure blast to read.

To try to explain the plot is complicated, not least because so much depends on this intricate world that Pullman has built, where the Church reigns over most of the civilized world, where technology has a somewhat steampunk feel, and most strikingly, where all humans are constantly accompanied by their “daemons” – spirit animals, for lack of a better term, but ones that serve as an extension/embodiment of their souls. When you’re a child, your daemon shifts and flits between moods; as you grow and mature, it settles into a given shape that says much about you. And while that seems like a simple enough conceit, Pullman packs it with metaphorical richness, from the way it gives windows into characters we don’t fully know the truth of to the way it becomes a metaphor for aging and maturity – one of the key themes of the book.

Indeed, at its heart, The Golden Compass – and the entire His Dark Materials trilogy – is about growing up and maturing, and the accompanying changes that come with that. The series is primarily driven around the quest to understand Dust, an elementary atomic particle that seems to change its behavior based off of the age and maturity of a child. And while the exact nature of what Dust is – or, at least, what it may be – only becomes clear as the book continues, it becomes understandable very quickly that this ranges into theological territory, with questions of sin, evil, and the “knowledge of good and evil” coming into play. Which brings us to the deeper question: how do you keep children safe from the corrupting influence of sin? More importantly, should you?

If that sounds heavy, it should; Pullman’s trilogy is engaged in nothing less than theological debate, first as subtext, and then by text. And yet, while the content is evidently there from the early going, nothing in The Golden Compass ever makes the book feel preachy or bludgeoning; instead, what you get is an astonishing adventure, as our heroine Lyra – a scrappy, determined, outspoken young girl who grows up as the adopted child of Oxford University, more or less – goes in quest of her uncle. Along the way, Pullman brings in witches, aeronauts, a compass that taps into Dust to understand the reality of the world, and most memorably, polar bears, who live in an honor-bound society where their armor and battle is as much a part of them as Lyra’s daemon is.

That all of this happens in less than 300 pages shouldn’t work; that so much depends on us buying into Pullman’s world and understanding its taboos and the importance of daemons, even less so. And yet, miraculously, it does, thanks in no small part to Pullman’s rich prose, which plunges us so deeply into Lyra’s view that it’s hard not to get swept up into it. Nor does it hurt that Pullman’s imagination is so rich, and his pacing so fast; The Golden Compass absolutely moves, never shirking its characters, but never letting time pass without some new wonder, some thoughtful discussion, some incredible sequence. It’s one of the richest, most compelling fantasy settings around, and a forerunner for so much of the YA that’s become so popular in the wake of Harry Potter and Twilight.

The thing is, though? It’s almost definitely better than most of that YA, up to and including even chunks of Potter. (Blasphemy, I know. But read The Golden Compass and then come tell me it’s not better than, say, Chamber of Secrets). If you’ve never read it, you’re going to be blown away by it, I promise you; jump in and understand why this series captivates so many, and why it resonates so many years later.

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Fiend, by Peter Stenson / **** ½

9780770436322You could easily be forgiven for passing on Fiend as soon as I tell you that, yes, it’s a zombie novel. And yet, Fiend is the reason we never write off genres: because there’s always a chance that someone can do something wonderful, new, and fresh with it. Because while Peter Stenson has, nominally, given us a zombie novel, Fiend is also a novel about drug addicts – specifically, it’s a novel about meth addiction, with all the bluntness, black comedy, and unapologetically awful behavior of something like Trainspotting, married with the nightmarish reality of a world in which anything even close to “normal” society is gone.

Indeed, it takes a little bit to realize that Fiend isn’t just a drug novel in which our characters are hallucinating the horrors as a result of their meth habits. But very quickly, it becomes obvious that Fiend is a marriage of books: it’s a bleak, unrelenting portrait of addiction and what it does to people and their relationships; it’s a twisted, broken love story between two irrevocably damaged human beings; and it’s a post-apocalyptic zombie story, full of zombies that emit mad chuckles instead of groans. And if you’re wondering exactly how Stenson ties all of these things together, it won’t take long to realize that Stenson is using the zombie apocalypse as a metaphor for the devastation of addiction, which turns you away from other human beings and into a self-destructive spiral in which all you care about is the next big score.

And make no mistake here: Fiend pulls no punches in its recounting of the methhead lifestyle. Stenson is a recovering addict himself, and every page of Fiend feels like the voice of experience is pushing through, depicting addiction with honesty, a certain black humor and self-reflection, and a refusal to pretty up any of the details. The result is a book with absolutely abhorrent characters, ones with whom it’s almost impossible to empathize, even as we recognize the poor choices that led them down this path. Again, it’s hard not to make comparisons to Trainspotting, which does so much of what Fiend does – depicts both the appeal and the bleak reality of addiction, all without judgment being passed except by the characters themselves…except that Stenson plunges these characters into a world where their drug habits might just be the only thing worth living for anymore, and where the pockmarked skin and rotting teeth of the addicts pale in comparison to the cackling dead outside in the dark.

In other words, Fiend is two books in one, and lets them play off of each other beautifully, letting the horrors be underlined by the selfishness (and self-destructiveness) of the characters, just as the realities of addiction are played out on operatic scale in the background as the world crumbles. And best of all, Fiend finds a grounding, investing us in our main character’s last grasp at a healthy relationship in the midst of all of this – and giving us one thing to actually hope for in the midst of all of the awfulness.

Let’s be blunt: Fiend is full of unsympathetic characters, lots of profanity, graphic violence, explicit drug use, and unblinking looks at how far people will go for drugs. It’s scary, violent, brutal, nasty, and incredibly bleak. It’s also darkly funny, incredibly thoughtful, reflective, unapologetic, and beautifully literate in a counter-culture sort of way. It’s a book that is undeniably not for everyone. But if you’re open to what it offers, it’s a fascinating read, one that tells an honest story about addiction by fictionalizing it, and one that finds a new window on a classic horror by turning it into something even scarier. I absolutely loved it; it’s not like anything else, and that’s undeniably a good thing.

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The Two Faces of January, by Patricia Highsmith / *** ½

highsmith_januaryThe more work by Patricia Highsmith that I read, the more that two things become very clear. The first is that Highsmith had a fascinating mind for suspense, immersing readers in minds shaped by guilt and perverse impulses that they themselves didn’t understand, and using simple premises to play people against each other. The second fact, though, is that Highsmith is, at best, a decent author, one whose prose often failed to elevate the material around it, and sometimes made it feel as though her books aren’t as good as they really can be. (In other words, Highsmith has a bit of what I’m going to call “Philip K. Dick Syndrome” – great ideas, phenomenal complexity, iffy writing.)

Mind you, it’s possible that I’ve just been picking some of her lesser work since knocking out most of the Ripley books. But The Two Faces of January undeniably fits into this realm; there’s a lot of great psychological tension being built into this story of a trio of Americans whose lives get entangled when they meet over the course of a quick body disposal, only to find things get far, far more complicated. A middle-aged swindler; his much younger, attractive wife; and a young man running from a shadowy reputation and a complicated family life – Highsmith brings them to life and plays them beautifully off of each other, constructing their minds so carefully and intricately that everything feels inevitable, horrifyingly unstoppable, and unrelentingly tense as it unfolds. The plotting is simple but effective, much in the way that so many of Highsmith’s works revolve not just around a crime, but around the repercussions and the way they ripple outward for far, far longer than you would think.

And yet, for all of that tension and craft and psychological insight, The Two Faces of January sometimes feels like a bit of a drag, perking up every so often as Highsmith turns the screws again. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but what I came back to again and again was that Highsmith, for all of her thoughtfulness, so often lived so deeply in the mental lives of her characters that she forgot to keep things in motion. More than that, the hand-wringing and internal debating is fascinating up to a point, but ultimately, it takes until the book’s halfway point for things to really take off, when Highsmith plays her hidden ace and we see what the book is really about – at least, until a somewhat disappointing, rote ending that feels like a fizzle.

And so, appropriately enough (given the title), we have a strangely divided book. The characters are rich and intriguing, and when the book is at its best, watching Highsmith pit them against each other as they play their horrifying game, it’s wonderfully taut. But when Highsmith dives too deeply into Freudian motivations or internal waffling, it can feel glacial and overwrought, belaboring material that works best when it’s tense and uncertain. It’s well-crafted, intricate, carefully paced…and also overlong, a little flat at times, and fizzles towards the end. On the whole, there’s more good than bad, but there’s definitely a sense that this isn’t her best work.

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The Girl with Ghost Eyes, by M.H. Boroson / ****

25159239There’s something exciting about reading a book that draws on traditions you’re unfamiliar with, and that goes double when you’re dealing with supernatural forces and old folklore. Telling a story about feuding gangs with supernatural trappings set in the 1800’s is a good hook, but M.H. Boroson’s The Girl with the Ghost Eyes goes further by diving into Chinese folklore, spiritual warfare, and ancient traditions, telling a story that doesn’t feel like anything else I’ve read. And though the book’s writing isn’t the best, the propulsive story, fascinating cosmology, and great characters all make for a great read well worth your time.

Trying to explain the plot is difficult; there’s a lot going on here, even before you dive into the complexity of the cultural traditions being explored. Suffice to say that it’s the story of Xian Li-lin, the only child of a prominent Daoshi exorcist (a man who seems constantly disappointed at the fact that he’s left with only a female child behind). Li-lin is not only in training to succeed her father, however; she has yin eyes, which allow her to see the spirit world around her. Li-lin finds herself being used as part of a plot to get to her father, but the question is, why? Is it a power play by a rival tong? A threat from a malevolent entity? Or something far greater and more dangerous?

The Girl with Ghost Eyes follows Li-lin as she dives into the spirit realm, fights dangerous bodyguards, grapples with ancient incantations, and tries her best to save her father and understand what’s going on. In many ways, it’s pure noir; from the shadowy alleyways of Chinatown to the numerous characters on all sides of the moral spectrum, from the dangerous world of Chinese tongs to a struggle for power, M.H. Boroson plays it all with a heavy (and well-used) glaze of noir toppings.

But in the end, The Girl with Ghost Eyes is most memorable and exciting for the richness of the culture it evokes, and the astonishing visions we get along the way. Back alley marketplaces of demons and spirits. Midnight parades of unimaginable beings. Dark spells carved into skin. Passports that assist in moving beyond the ghost realm. Ancient incantations based on conceptions of death far outside of the Western mentality. An emphasis on saving face, on honor, on gender roles, on ancestry. The Girl with Ghost Eyes doesn’t just slap on a few ethnic ideas and assume that’s good; instead, it immerses you in its well-researched and understood world, bringing it to life on every page, every social interaction, every question of motivation. From the necessary spells to the conflicts between rivals, from family histories to job titles, Boroson brings the era to life phenomenally, giving us a way to experience a mythology and heritage far outside what most of us ever get to.

The Girl with Ghost Eyes isn’t flawless at all; the writing, while never bad at all, often feels functional at best, and occasionally can get a bit too heavy into “telling” instead of “showing”. And yes, that complicated plot sometimes gets to be a bit too much; there are times where it feels like the book isn’t just this one story, but every other idea Boroson had thrown into the background. By and large, though, the book works, keeping you completely hooked into its compelling world and incredibly fleshed out mythology, and investing you in the fate of a young woman who’s desperate to prove herself in the face of every obstacle. It’s a compelling, fascinating story, one whose world and characters are so good that it overcomes the small, forgivable flaws along the way. Here’s hoping there’s more books in this world to come, and a lot more of Li-lin’s story for me to enjoy.

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Standard Hollywood Depravity, by Adam Christopher / **** ½

31216087Last year, I picked up Adam Christopher’s Made to Kill on a whim, and was delighted I’d done so; marrying the hard-boiled PI stories of Raymond Chandler with science-fiction trappings, Made to Kill was a treat, telling an old-fashioned story in a wholly unique and interesting way. Its protagonist, Ray Electromatic, was the last robot left working after a brief boom in the industry, and now, he was left investigating cases – oh, and murdering for hire, too. It was a great hook for a pulpy tale, and if Made to Kill never really moved beyond its pulpy roots, that’s fine; it was enough fun that it more than justified its existence and then some.

Now comes Standard Hollywood Depravity, a follow-up novella to Made to Kill that finds Ray being brought in for the killing of a young go-go dancer, only to find the club full of very dangerous made men – a situation that makes his life far more complicated, and the job far more complicated. And making things worse is the way that Ray is no longer content to just follow orders and his programming; no, Ray is getting curious about things, and questioning the situations he finds himself in, and feeling a little more reluctant about killing without reason.

In pretty much every way, Standard Hollywood Depravity is an improvement on Made to Kill; the story is more complex and interesting, Ray more complicated as a hero, the writing sharper. But best of all, Christopher seems to have eased into his world more comfortably, digging around in the weird world that he’s been shaping. What’s it like to be a huge robot and not have people surprised to see you? What happens when you’re becoming aware, as a programmed creation, that your coding might be antithetical to your rapidly growing consciousness? Depravity deals with all of this and more, and does so in a tighter narrative – all the more impressive.

There are still a few issues, mind you; it feels like Christopher elides out a pretty significant scene towards the end of the book, but not in a way that would lead to interesting ambiguity; it just feels incomplete and off-balance in a way, and makes it feel like the book gets rushed right at the very end. And that’s a bit of a disappointment, considering how good the rest of it is. But in pretty much every other way, this one is a knockout, and has me even more excited to check out the next entry in the series.

(Side note: Standard Hollywood Depravity also features a short story entitled “Brisk Money,” which serves as a bit of a prequel to the series. “Brisk Money” is a great story; that being said, the story relies so much on Ray not having information about his life that we already have that it doesn’t always entirely work, especially since the story never really makes it clear when it takes place. In other words, it took me most of the story to realize that this was a prequel that takes place before Made to Kill, and sets up the series to come. There’s still a pretty fascinating detail included here, and it’s a good story; it just feels like it would work better if it was clearer when in the series it took place.)

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Two Novellas by Laird Barron

Before The Croning, his first novel-length effort, Laird Barron was known for his short work, with a number of award-winning short fiction collections that demonstrated his gift for literate, inventive, nightmarish, Lovecraftian horrors. So it’s not really a surprise to find that two novellas Barron has released, Man With No Name and X’s For Eyes, are probably even better and stronger than The Croning in many ways. They’re tighter, more focused, and no less terrifying and surreal when they want to be. What is surprising, though, is how much they each find Barron dabbling in other genres, all while never leaving behind his horror roots.

28604328Man With No Name is subtitled “A Nanashi Novella,” a line that certainly implies this is the first in a series. Exactly how that will work is something I’m quite curious about, because, without spoiling anything, to say that this doesn’t exactly lend itself to a traditional sequel is an understatement. That being said, the setup here undeniably feels like the first in a long-running crime series, revolving around a man named Nanashi, a loner adopted into the Japanese Yakuza. Nanashi is a man of action, and a valued employee, but little more; he often feels more like a mascot than a made man, despite the fact that he’s more controlled, and more dangerous, than many of those he works for.

That’s a good, pulpy setup, and Barron continues that feeling as the men get orders to kidnap a once-famed wrestler with ties to another gang and hold him hostage. Then the wrestler shows Nanashi his famous magic trick, one that allows the viewer to see the face of a deity – or perhaps, something darker. And then things start to go off the rails, as time becomes unhinged, and reality begins to fold up around Nanashi…

Man With No Name is deliberately confounding, often leaving the reader a bit in the dark intentionally, since Nanashi is left equally confused. It’s an effective technique, but one that can make the story sometimes difficult to parse, as we try to piece together what’s happening from our knowledge of horror tropes, elliptical clues, and late revelations. The idea that Barron might be setting up some longer story here is fascinating, although I’m not certain that he is; it’s quite possible that this is just a standalone horror tale, one whose weirdness will never be satisfactorily explained. As it is, though, Man With No Name is compelling, weird stuff; it’s crime fiction that becomes a surreal nightmare, all without losing its crime roots, and all while being told in Barron’s solid, craftsman-like prose. If it’s a little confusing and strange, well, it earns that strangeness and makes it work for the mood of the whole thing. (Oh, and if that’s not enough for you, there’s a pretty great bonus story attached to the ebook of Man With No Name that finds Barron playing around with Frankenstein in ways both funny and truly original. It’s a great capper to the book.) Rating: ****

81k0wkleemlBut even better than Man With No Name is X’s For Eyes, which finds Barron writing an elaborate homage to Jonny Quest and/or The Venture Bros. that also manages to dabble in his usual cosmic horrors. Now, if you’re thinking that that sounds like an uneasy marriage, or one that might lead to some weirdly comic juxtapositions…well, you’re right. X’s For Eyes is offbeat and funny even before things beyond the veil of sleep start appearing, and even then, Barron makes his horrors wholly more entertaining and odd than you would expect from a traditional story.

Of course, it goes without saying that X’s For Eyes has all the usual writerly craft and astonishing prose that you normally expect from Barron; what works so well about X’s, though, is that he marries that to the tale of two brothers raised by a brilliant father, taught by educational pods, protected by wisecracking explorers, and constantly immersed in corporate espionage. Indeed, for a bit, it’s not even clear that X’s For Eyes is going to become a horror story; for a while, it’s about these boys and a confusing rocket experiment gone wrong. But Barron is just throwing you off balance, because when he kicks off the horror elements, trust me, he does so quickly, brutally, and nastily.

From there, things get stranger indeed, in typical Barron fashion. But, again, what makes X’s work is that it never feels like his other works; yes, there may be nightmarish beings beyond our own dimension, but the creatures of X’s feel…more human, somehow. Or, perhaps, just less inscrutable – but no less horrifying. Then again, things have a way of sneaking in under the surface…

Whatever the case, none of it keeps X’s from being a blast – it’s fun, then it’s unsettling, then it’s horrifying, and yet somehow always feels of a piece. And that it does all of this while never losing its grip on that Venture Bros. feel? Just fantastic. Rating: *****

Amazon: Man With No Name | X’s For Eyes