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.




Strange Weather, by Joe Hill / **** ½

34066621I’m not sure why it is that Joe Hill has become so thought of as horror fiction by so many people, myself included. Yes, his novels and stories undoubtedly dip their toes into horror, sometimes wholeheartedly embracing it. Yes, he’s the son of America’s most famous writer, a man who has become synonymous with the horror genre. But to categorize Joe Hill’s work as simply “horror” fiction is to do it a disservice, something that his collection of novellas Strange Weather reminds us. Yes, Hill can scare us…but it says something that the most horrifying, disturbing story here is entirely realistic and set within the everyday world, without a single supernatural element at all. Yes, he loves to push the boundaries of what’s “normal,” and dives into the trappings of genre fiction, including a great horror tale…but when your collection also contains stories about a man trapped on the outside of a UFO in the sky, a sobering look at American gun culture, and a thoroughly unusual apocalyptic tale that doesn’t fit into any sort of sort of conventional box, it’s hard to look at Hill as anything less than a genre writer who’s uninterested in writing stories that neatly compartmentalize themselves. And that’s all the better for us as readers.

As its subtitle suggests, Strange Weather is a collection of four short novels, each of which is engrossing in its own way, while also managing to remind the reader of Hill’s incredible range. The collection’s opener, “Snapshot,” for instance, is ostensibly a standard horror story, following a young boy as he becomes aware of a sinister figure in his neighborhood whose camera seems to capture more than just images of those in its viewfinder. And, yes, Hill lets this unfold in typical horror fashion, building its unease and then delivering a disturbing payoff. And yet, that’s not where the story ends. Indeed, Hill lets “Snapshot” go on longer than you expect, slowly turning the story into something more heartfelt and effective than just a standard horror tale, and one that surprises you by having more to it than just some creepy ideas.

Much the same could be said for “Aloft,” the third story here, which tells the story of a young man skydiving both to commemorate the life of a late friend and to impress the girl he’s been in love with for years. But his jump goes awry, not in the leaping, but in the landing – because he lands on what appears to be a UFO. What’s stranger?The UFO seems to react to his presence, giving him the things he needs, all while never allowing him a way down. “Aloft” is utterly strange throughout, feeling utterly unpredictable throughout, because we have little frame of reference. What results is part brush with death, part inexplicable alien encounter, and part paranormal story, all resulting in a satisfying ending more focused on its character than its plotting (though I loved the ultimate answers as to the nature of this craft). Similarly, the collection’s closer, “Rain,” is an apocalyptic tale, giving us a world where rain is no longer water, but instead hard, needle-like crystals wreaking havoc on what’s below. Following its lesbian protagonist (a nice move away from “white straight male” as the default hero for a story) as she makes her way across the state to convey the message of her girlfriend’s death to her family, “Rain” trades in the traditional post-apocalyptic tropes – panics in the street, martial warfare, paranoia – but in a uniquely 21st century way, with MMA fighters mourning their kittens, Russians spreading propaganda, government officials tweeting their threats, and more. It would all almost be a black comedy at times if it weren’t so bleak and haunting in its devastation.

But, in many ways, the most important – and the most affecting – tale in the collection is “Loaded,” in which Hill dives headfirst into America’s complicated, toxic relationship with guns. From loners who fetishize military equipment to racist snap judgments, from the links between abusers and gun violence to the pervasive and noxious myth of the “good guy with a gun,” “Loaded” makes no apologies for its stances and never backs down from the painful realities it’s depicting. No, “Loaded” doesn’t have a character spell out its messages, but it’s not necessary; the points are impossible to miss, and Hill makes them hurt as much as possible. It’s a viscerally, emotionally upsetting story, one that’s even more so in the wake of yet another shooting – but after all, when aren’t we these days? That “Loaded” is so potent, so upsetting, so powerful is maybe the best testament yet to Hill’s skill – and a reminder that, far from only being a horror novelist, Hill is something far more capable, surprising, and broadly talented – and if you doubt it, well, Strange Weather should be a welcome reminder.


The Leftovers (Season 3) / *****

the-leftovers-season-3-posterI’ve been a fan of The Leftovers since the beginning – yes, even that infamous first season, which I think is phenomenal television and gets an unfairly bad rap. (That’s not to say it’s not a bleak and draining experience, but I think people complain far too much about it.) Then came the second season, which managed to be even better – keeping all the themes and ideas of the first season, but turning into something more darkly funny and slightly more accessible, all while never compromising in the least.

And now, the show has ended with its best season yet, which went even further than the second, delivering some of the wildest, strangest, most ambitious hours of television I’ve seen in years, all while never leaving behind its basic themes: an exploration of grief, faith, doubt, and purpose in a hostile – or even worse, indifferent – universe. That’s heady, astonishing fare even for prestige television, but The Leftovers never flinches from its mission, exploring how faith can both give us purpose and blind us to reality, how suffering and pain are an essential part of the human experience but no less devastating for their necessity, how death leaves us walking wounded.

In lesser hands, The Leftovers would be overwhelmingly crushing (see that first season, which came close). But in the hands of Damon Lindelof, it’s one of the most remarkable, inventive, surreal, and powerful shows I’ve ever seen. What other show could take a throwaway joke about a beloved 80’s sitcom from season one, then twist it until it became a powerful scene about finding yourself rejected by the world and even the universe as a whole? What other show could take a character’s struggle with faith and have it culminate with an episode involving God, a sex cruise, and a lion? What other show could kick things off with a series of increasingly ludicrous bio-scanners (and one of the all-time funniest sound effects on a tv series), but end by forcing us to carry through an infamous and horrific nuclear deterrent? And honestly, I’m only scratching the surface of a season that delved into Australian Aboriginal culture, apocalyptic fears, damaged relationships, suicidal tendencies, but also a slow-motion trampoline sequence set to the Wu-Tang Clan, pratfalls, and a surprising number of penis jokes. The Leftovers has always been its own unique show, but never more than this season, when it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen on television – and I’m watching Twin Peaks right now. It’s unpredictable but always consistent, surreal but always comprehensible, surprising but logical – in other words, it was a constant joy to tune in, simply because I never knew what to expect, but it was always going to be great.

In other words, as The Leftovers hit its final season, its confidence grew, and the show was willing to go for broke, making its characters’ struggles literal, tangible, and even operatic in their stakes. These are big questions – questions about God, about why we suffer, why people die, how we can find happiness, what happens to us after we die, and the importance (or lack thereof) of faith. And rather than giving glib, simplistic takes or easy answers, Lindelof embraces the complexity and difficulty of these issues, exploring them and refusing to ever give us – or the characters – easy answers. The Leftovers has always been a show about uncertainty, a feat it managed to the end, somehow finding the absolute perfect way to handle the question of “What exactly happened in the Departure?” in a way that perfectly matches the show’s themes.

It doesn’t hurt that the show is anchored by such great performances. Christopher Eccleston’s religious figure Matt is all the more compelling and rich this year, as his faith leads him in some bizarre – and maybe delusional – places. Scott Glenn finally gets some showcases after far too long, carrying an episode on his back largely with his weathered, questioning face. Justin Theroux is as great as ever, mixing despair, anger, doubt, and public confidence in a way that’s instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever struggled with the moodiness that comes with depression. And best of all, there’s Carrie Coon’s wounded, bristly Nora Durst, perhaps the single person most affected by the Departure, whose pain can’t be covered up, no matter how tough her exterior can be. There’s any number of other great actors here, including a few I don’t want to spoil (but will be welcome appearances for fans), but the show’s main cast truly does remarkable work, investing us in these wounded, hurt people and following them as they grapple with issues that every single one of us grapple with as well.

Look, I know that so much of what I’m saying makes The Leftovers sound like work, or like seriously heavy fare. And make no mistake – the questions, the struggles, the themes of this series are huge ones, universal ones that are going to hit home for many of us, and evoke painful personal moments. But in the end, the reason The Leftovers works is that, for all of its questions, for all of its doubts, for all of its fears, it finds optimism and a reason to keep on, even in the midst of it all. Whether that be faith or family, relationships or purpose, The Leftovers ends up being far more reaffirming than you might expect for a show that’s so much about death, grief, and loss. And that optimism and hope is something very much worth remembering, maybe now more than ever.


The Girl with All the Gifts, by M.R. Carey / ****

the_girl_with_all_the_giftsYou could be forgiven for passing on The Girl with All the Gifts – after all, don’t we have enough zombie fiction out there already? Hasn’t pretty much every version of this story been told, to rapidly decreasing returns? And yet, I’ve been hearing nothing but positive reactions to The Girl with All the Gifts in both its film and novel forms for a while now, giving me the sense that this was something new and fresh, a zombie story that breathed fresh life into the genre. And by and large, those reactions were correct, at least for the novel; while Girl has some flaws and shortcomings, it’s gripping and imaginative, and so much fun – and so different – that it’s not hard to overlook them in favor of the great book you’re getting.

Exactly how much to reveal about the plot of Girl seems to be up for debate – indeed, many would argue that even revealing that it’s a zombie novel is a spoiler, despite it being revealed within the first few chapters of the book. But in the interest of playing cards close to the chest (even though I’ll say I knew the basic premise of the book going in, and it ruined nothing for me), I’ll simply say that Girl opens in a school setting, with a series of students going through their lessons. But it doesn’t take long to realize how much is off about these lessons – not just the lessons, but the sealed off military base in which they’re occurring, or the cells to which the children are carted – yes, carted – when the lessons finish. Yes, something is odd about this, but it certainly seems like a safer place than beyond the fences. Of course, that’s before classmates start vanishing one day.

That’s probably enough to get you started, but don’t worry – if you think you know where this is going (and again, I did before I even read it), Carey’s smart enough to never be too precious about his reveals, or to draw things out for too long. Instead, Girl constantly evolves and changes in front of you, doling out its reveals and reversals at a great pace, and letting the dynamics constantly change, keeping the reader on their toes without fail. Whatever the status quo is at any point in the book, don’t get too comfortable; Carey’s plotting is going to keep it changing and shifting, and keep the book compelling.

And yet, the book never feels episodic; thematically, it’s rich fare, with questions being raised about the nature of the zombie virus, and the distinction between us and the. That’s a classic zombie trope, but Girl echoes Richard Matheson’s essential I Am Legend in the way it approaches those issues, diving into the zombie virus with a love of scientific explanation that pleased me to no end, and giving me a biological reasoning behind zombies that was so obvious it stunned me no one had used it before that I could remember. But not content with using Matheson’s ideas about science-based horror, Carey also blurs the lines between zombies and humans, raising questions about our actions, morality, and where the line between monster and hero really comes – and delivering a knockout ending that took the book from “good” to “pretty dang great” in its perfection.

Look, for all of that, Girl undeniably has some faults, most notably in some of the supporting cast that work fine, but never great (I’m thinking especially here of the book’s chief antagonist, who needed just a little more tuning to keep her from being cartoonishly evil; as it is, you can see what Carey was going for, but it doesn’t quite work), and the action sequences are passable, not much more. But for all of that, it’s a blast to read, and more than that, it’s a reminder that even the most tired of genres can still be brought back to life with enough imagination and a fresh take.


More Brief Book Reviews

Ah, May. That craziest time of year for teachers, where every spare second is taken up with grading, graduation prep, more grading, saying goodbye to seniors, making final exams, a bit more grading, and keeping all of the students under control. In other words, it’s not exactly my best time for reading and watching stuff. But I’ve still managed to catch up on a few things, even if one was for work and one was with the kiddos…

21412284The one book I read for me was Nick Cutter’s The Deep, a horror novel that finds its setting in a confined, claustrophobic underwater sea lab set up near the bottom of the ocean’s depths. That’s a great place to put a horror novel, and Cutter makes the most of it, never letting the characters – or the reader – forget the isolation, the darkness outside, or the sheer wrongness of existing in a place so hostile to human life. It’s the plot that’s a bit messier here, and it ultimately makes the book feel a bit cluttered and messy, even if the scares and horror work like gangbusters. The Deep opens as a post-apocalyptic tale, with a disease called “The ‘Gets” wiping out much of humanity, and one possible cure found in the aforementioned lab. But once the book moves into the waters, things get complicated, diving into twisted family backstories and a more constant, omnipresent horror that feels like Pennywise from It snuck into an apocalyptic novel. It all ends up feeling a bit all over the place for a while, as if Cutter had about three different novels going and decided to jam them all together, and the book’s odd pacing (which sort of shoots off in spurts once the book gets to the lab) keeps things a bit confusing and rushed at times. For all of that, though, Cutter maintains his gift for horror and psychological screw-turning, from a journal following a mind through madness to a cavalcade of nightmarish images that defy description and reason. And while The Deep sometimes feels like too much plot for its length – and occasionally feels unexpectedly rushed – it’s still a pretty solid piece of horror, if not as strong as either of the other Cutter books that I’ve read. Rating: *** ½

6867Meanwhile, work has found me re-reading Ian McEwan’s Atonement, only to find it solidifying even further as a true masterpiece, and among the finest books I’ve ever read. I’ve written about Atonement before (about a year ago, when I first taught it); suffice to say that it’s a story set against the backdrop of World War II, telling the story of a young girl who makes an awful mistake early in life, and her efforts to atone for that mistake. Re-reading Atonement, it’s even more clear how intricately structured this book is – how well it hides its secrets in plain sight, how its themes are established in even the most seemingly pointless scenes, and how every sentence, every word, is deployed to maximum effect. And none of that even gets into the way McEwan lets his narrative deploy emotional punches when the reader is least prepared, whether it’s watching as Briony makes her awful mistake or sitting by the side of a French soldier who’s dying far from home (in a passage that left me choked up when reading it out loud in class, and had several students confessing that they cried reading it). I’m in awe of Atonement – not just the prose, not just the powerful story, but the sheer craft and technique that went into it, weaving dozens of themes and ideas and stories together in a way that seems effortless, but holds together with each successive revelation and shock. A masterpiece, plain and simple. Rating: *****

9780439139601_p0_v1_s1200x630Finally, the kids and I recently finished up our bedtime reading through Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the book that’s always been held up as the major transition of the series from light, fun kids fare to something more ambitious and “older”. That observation holds up, not only in terms of the plot, but also in terms of Rowling’s writing, which really feels as though it’s on another level from what we’ve seen once the book hits its big payoff. Goblet of Fire is a long book, and while there’s an argument that it’s got some unnecessary detours along the way, it’s hard not to enjoy all of the sidebars and wonderful journeys into Rowling’s imagination and world. What other series could dedicate so much time to the question of whether magical serving races are in fact being used as slavery, and lets that debate play out? (Indeed, one could easily argue that the book’s details are better than the main story, which really makes no sense whatsoever; there’s a lot I love about this book, but the story is pretty absurd, and deeply hurts the book along the way a few times.) But really, it’s the last section that everyone remembers, and rightfully so, as Rowling’s writing becomes sharper, her control of mood becomes better than we’ve ever seen it, and the characters’ ideals – and the themes of the series – become richer and more compelling. Indeed, maybe the biggest surprise to me was how much harder I took the big death of this book; while I initially dismissed it on my first read as “well, it’s a way to raise the stakes,” Rowling does so much more with it than I remembered, turning the last part of the book into a shocking moment that drives home to the characters the stakes of their fight. In short, I had a blast with it, even more than I remembered; it’s a fun book, sure, but reading it – and, undoubtedly, experiencing it through my daughter’s reactions – has given me a fresh love for Rowling’s novels. Rating: ****

Amazon: The Deep | Atonement | Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood / *****

51nwvn-wm6l-_sx323_bo1204203200_Dystopias are all the rage these days, and even setting aside some grim feelings about our current age, it’s not hard to understand why. Dystopias make for rich world building, sure, but more than that, they allow writers to play with heady concepts – the power of language (1984), genetic engineering (Brave New World), unfiltered modern communication (Chaos Walking), media circuses (The Hunger Games), and so forth. What’s rarer, though, is finding a dystopian novel with a sly, dark sense of humor about itself, laughing all the way through the apocalypse and beyond. And yet, that’s what you get with Margaret Atwood’s wonderful Oryx and Crake, a post-apocalyptic tale that gradually starts revealing its roots in a dystopian society of sorts, filled with designer medications, profit-seeking corporations, medical research, and genetic engineering. You know, fiction.

In strict plot terms, Oryx and Crake is simple – it tells the story of Snowman, a human living in some sort of post-apocalyptic Earth. Mind you, this isn’t a radioactive blight, or some ashen McCarthy hellscape. No, the Earth of Oryx and Crake simply qualifies as post-apocalyptic by virtue of the fact that we rapidly realize that Snowman might be the last human being alive. Now, that doesn’t mean he’s the last humanoid – not with that tribe of creatures so like us, but so different, living nearby. And as we watch Snowman’s awkward interactions with a set of creatures that don’t quite understand him, he thinks back to the world that was – and how he and his friend Crake, along with a woman named Oryx, just might have ended it all.

This dual-threaded story structure lets Atwood play around in a number of ways, exploring not only a landscape changed thanks to the tampering of man with genetics, but also with our own modern world, showing how our own habits could end up being our doom. In Atwood’s hands, Oryx and Crake becomes a Brave New World for the modern age, where it’s not ourselves we need to genetically engineer – it’s the world around us, from animals to diseases, and most especially, to our medications.

In the wrong hands, Oryx and Crake could turn didactic and preachy, a jeremiad against modern conveniences and our desire to be happy above all else. But Atwood lets the subtext carry its own weight, instead investing us in Snowman, his awkward place in a tiered society that doesn’t have much need of him, and his friendship with the brilliant, strange Crake. Without giving too much away, Atwood’s story becomes far more human and emotionally driven than you might expect from its epic world-building, and its depiction of the way the world ends is almost bitterly funny.

That, of course, goes for much of the book, whose absurd brand names, bad drug side effects, internet sites, and school settings all feel dead-on, pushed just one step beyond our current reality and into deadpan parody. There’s a dark winking to help the trenchant points go down, finding the absurdity in so much of our modern world and trying to help us laugh at it along with Atwood.

For all of that, I’m not sure Oryx and Crake quite sticks the landing; even knowing that there are two more books to follow doesn’t make the slightly open-ended ending here less frustrating or less arbitrary feeling, as though Atwood just picked a bit of a random point at which to end the book. It’s not a dealbreaker – not in a book whose characters are this rich, whose world is this intriguing, whose commentary is so well handled – but it is the one sour note in Oryx and Crake, a book that otherwise I absolutely loved, beginning to end, and the one that confirmed for me what I thought after I finished The Handmaid’s Tale years back: that I really need to make reading more Atwood a priority.


The City of Mirrors, by Justin Cronin / **** ½

17059277-_sy540_Justin Cronin’s Passage series has always been fascinating for its refusal to easily be pigeonholed into any one genre. On one level, it’s an apocalyptic horror epic, one in which a tribe of vampiric creatures has wiped out most of the population of the Earth. On another level, it’s a survival story, one in which people are working to rebuild civilization in the face of unimaginable disaster. And on yet another level, it’s a rich character drama, one in which people’s choices and character arcs drive the action every bit as much as the threats around them.

That refusal to stick to any one genre is both the best and the most frustrating thing about The City of Mirrors, the final entry in the trilogy. At times uplifting, at times heartbreaking, at times terrifying, The City of Mirrors takes all of Cronin’s habits to extremes. This is a book that features the most terrifying and nightmarish sequence of any of the novels to date; it’s also one which dedicates a huge percentage to the backstory of its major villain – a backstory which is mainly about a young student navigating his complicated relationship with his friends and struggling with his attraction to one of them.

That means that City of Mirrors can often be frustrating, even while it’s constantly engaging. Cronin’s prose remains solid, and his willingness to focus on character depth has always been one of the pleasures of the series. Every character, no matter how major or minor, gets respect and a fully realized backstory; it’s a choice that’s paid off again and again in this series. The choice to go to this level of depth is a somewhat strange one, and one that undeniably hurts the pacing of this book. And yet, once you finish the book, you start to realize that Cronin has more on his mind than simply wrapping up his apocalyptic epic.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that Cronin had ended the series already. (Spoilers for The Twelve follow.) After all, by the end of the previous book, The Twelve, the titular Twelve – the original infected – had been destroyed, and peace seemed to be inevitable. Yes, Amy’s fate was up in the air, as was Alicia’s, but the story seemed to be at a sort of ending point. (Spoilers end.) Indeed, it’s a feeling shared by many characters in the novel, who feel that the story is at an end, and that humanity is finally entering a world of peace and rebuilding.

But The City of Mirrors reminds us that there’s one major threat still surviving, and focuses on that threat: the originator of the plague, a creature only known as Zero. And in Cronin’s hands, this final battle is as much ideological as it is physical. Is there any reason for hope? Does humanity deserve to survive? What, exactly, does survival mean, and at what cost should we attempt to survive? And what part does hope play in all of this? Cronin takes on the questions that underlie so many apocalyptic horror tales – from The Stand to The Fireman to The Walking Dead – and makes them part of the text, thus justifying the time spent on Zero’s backstory. Yes, it’s long, and it sort of wrecks the pacing…but it ends up being central to the philosophical battle at the heart of the novel.

That conflict extends all the way to the ending of the book, which finds Cronin looking at the far larger picture as to what it all means. It’s something he’s been hinting at all through the series, and yet that final section of The City of Mirrors is nonetheless quietly moving, giving us a true epilogue to the story, and an ending that nicely brings his themes together. The endings of apocalyptic tales are always complicated – just look at the three very different endings (or lack thereof) of the titles I mentioned above – and it’s rare to find one that moves so strongly toward optimism. And yet, it works here, giving an ending that both wraps up the story and feels emotionally satisfying. The City of Mirrors is an ambitious book, and one that’s far more “literary” and less conventional than its predecessors. And yet, nonetheless, it sticks the landing for the trilogy, satisfying the reader on a variety of levels while still providing the thrills and excitement we’ve come to demand from the series. It may be a little lumpy at points, but I’ll forgive that for the level of satisfaction that I got from the book as a whole.