Vacation Reading

We’ve been on vacation for the past week or so, which means that I’ve had a little more time than usual to get some reading in, including two review copies and a fun little twisty thriller. So, with so much to talk about (to say nothing of the movies and TV I’ve been ingesting), let’s do a few shorter reviews than usual.

894645323Evan Marshall Hernandez’s Breaking the Skies is an ambitious piece of work, especially for a more independent author. In broad terms, it’s a science-fiction war novel, opening its action with the final stand of a revolution set to end the reigning Queen on this planet. Hernandez’s heroes are largely on the side of the Queen for this novel, and yet Hernandez doesn’t necessarily make either side noticeably better or worse than the others. Indeed, many of the book’s pleasures come from the way it navigates moral complexity so well, establishing its heroes and villains clearly while letting everyone by fully realized, complex creations. More than that, Hernandez handles his action well, leaning both into the chaos of the war but also the morality of such violence, grappling with questions about who we ally ourselves with, the tactics we use in war, and humanity’s relationship with this alien planet.

But it’s that planet that makes for the most interesting material in the novel, which leans more heavily into the fantasy genre and brings out the best elements of the novel. Not content with just having complex human characters, Hernandez fills his planet with several animalistic races, each of which has its own personality, culture, and approach to the world. Even more interestingly, Hernandez offers his own variation on Philip Pullman’s daemons, pairing many of our heroes with creatures that are their partners and friends, which often tells you much about the people themselves. And Hernandez spends just as much time on these creatures as he does his human characters, investing them with backstories, culture, personality, and every bit as much richness as the others.

The end result is a rich, well-realized novel, one with enough complexity to the story to keep readers satisfied while never neglecting the world-building and detail that makes a fantasy world come to life. Breaking the Skies definitely feels like the first entry in a series, with sections that feel a bit drawn out at times, and some pacing that could use just a little more momentum at certain points. The sheer number of characters can be a little overwhelming at times, even while Hernandez makes them all work, and it ultimately feels like the book could be a bit shorter and lose little of its strengths. And yet, it’s a solid book that I don’t hesitate to recommend; its sheer imagination and solid storytelling, its great character work, and the fascinating world all work together wonderfully. The shortest, most focused recommendation I can give? I’m more than ready to read the second novel in the series at any time. Rating: ****

the-passenger-lisa-lutzLisa Lutz’s The Passenger kicks off with such a great opening that it’s almost a relief when the rest of the book lives up to it. It’s the story of a woman named…well, honestly, that’s complicated, given how many names she has over the course of this book. So let’s just say that it’s the story of a woman whose husband falls down the stairs and dies in a genuine accident. But she’s a) not that upset to see him go, b) worried that people might think she did it, and most importantly, c) seems awfully nervous for the police to go digging around. So she packs up and hits the road, calls a mysterious benefactor, and gets a new identity. And that goes well…for a few pages, at least.

Honestly, that’s about all I want to say about The Passenger, which is one of those books that are far more fun to read if you don’t know anything about them. Suffice to say, our heroine is on the move, constantly shifting identities based on the events around her, and only gradually revealing to us, the readers, exactly why she’s on the run in the first place. Even better, Lutz constantly raises the tension and the stakes, with dangerous run-ins, suspicious friends, and a kindred spirit who might be using her for nefarious means. It’s a gloriously twisty plot, one that uses every twist for maximum impact, whether to increase our unease or to stun with revelations.

But even better is our heroine, a complicated figure who lives comfortably in a world between villainy and heroism. Not a good person by any means, Lutz’s heroine also isn’t the antihero we might suspect; she’s a survivor, through and through, and as we learn more about her, her actions become more and more understandable. Her narration and pragmatic worldview make for a great aspect of the book, and the perfect companion for the twisty plot. The result is a great read, especially for the summer; it’s light but compelling, twisty but never unfair, dark but never horrific – in short, it’s a complete blast for anyone wanting a great thriller. Rating: **** ½

29468624Christopher Fowler’s Spanky was apparently originally released in the mid 90’s, a fact that feels right, given its central theme of a man who feels that his life has gotten off track and been far from what he hoped for. That was in the zeitgeist in that time, a fact that shows up in so many films of the time (American Beauty, Magnolia, Fight Club, and so on), to say nothing of other books (again, Fight Club, but more notably, Susan Faludi’s Stiffed). And so, in its broad strokes, Spanky‘s idea to marry that male anxiety to a modern riff on Faust, as a twenty-something Briton named Martyn gets offered a chance to turn his life around by a daemon named Spanky? That’s nothing too surprising, in hindsight.

That being said, what makes Spanky so much fun is how it uses its supernatural elements, first with a sly sense of humor, and then for absolutely horrific effect. Spanky starts as typical male wish-fulfillment stuff, but the titular daemon makes for a wonderfully anarchic figure in the midst of it all, playing Tyler Durden to Martyn (in his foreword, Fowler remarks that Fight Club, which came out after this, definitely feels like it’s almost the same book). As Martyn goes through his image makeover, dives into family trauma, and tries to meet women, Fowler keeps everything darkly funny and engaging, letting Martyn’s unease with some of it poke holes in the potentially toxic worldview.

But it’s really the novel’s second half, where Fowler lets the horror side of the story run wild, where Spanky shines. Fowler sets some tough boundaries on Spanky’s abilities, which could easily rob the horrors of their punch. Instead, they only make it better, as Martyn – and the reader – aren’t just subjected to twisted creatures and brutal violence, but thrust into an increasingly unreliable reality where we’re never sure what’s actually happening. It’s a great final act for a wonderfully nasty, fun read, one that holds up even twenty years (!) after its original release. Hopefully its American release will find it a new audience that enjoys it as much as I did. Rating: ****

Amazon: Breaking the Skies | The Passenger | Spanky

Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman / *****

61ydlztifql-_sx326_bo1204203200_There is no logical reason that Anno Dracula should work, honestly. To call Anno Dracula “overly ambitious fan fiction” wouldn’t seem like a bad idea, based off of the description of the novel. After all, this is a book in which Bram Stoker’s Dracula ascends to the British throne by marrying the Queen, resulting in the emergence of vampires out of the shadows. Oh, and it also means that Bram Stoker has been arrested for trying to write the book – which is better than what happened to Abraham van Helsing. But not content with just writing a sequel to Dracula, Newman turns Anno Dracula into a positive maelstrom of cultural, literary, and social references, with Sherlock Holmes (and his brother Mycroft, as well as more than a few other Holmesian supporting characters), the good doctors Moreau and Jekyll, Gilbert and Sullivan characters, opera icons – oh, and Jack the Ripper, of course. Indeed, it’s such a dense web of allusions both fictional and factual that this anniversary edition has a multi-page guide to some of the more obscure ones after the book ends.

And yet, not only does Anno Dracula succeed, it’s an absolute blast of a book, focusing on telling a great story rather than just playing an elaborate game of “spot the reference”. Using the Ripper’s crimes as a framework, Newman dives deeply into his alternate history, exploring how Victorian England might have shifted with the introduction of vampires, diving into the mythology of vampires (as well as the politics, given that they might not all be fans of the famed Count), exploring how class politics might change with the possibility of “turning”, and more. Rather than just telling a simple vampire story, in other words, Newman builds a whole alternate universe, and takes his time exploring it, following every small change and watching as it ripples outward, and investing us in disputes ranging from paid murder to broken engagements.

More than that, Newman invests us in his characters, letting the sides of his book be populated with the allusions and giving us his own original takes for our heroes (and some of the villains). From the outwardly mild-mannered Charles Beauregard (who covertly works for Conan Doyle’s infamous Diogenes Club) to Newman’s fascinating elder vampire Genevieve Dieudonne (older, indeed, than Dracula, and somewhat disgusted by the violence and depravity of the Count), Newman doesn’t just create an interesting, rich world; he gives us characters that we enjoy and care about, and makes their stories every bit as important as the macro story going on behind them. Indeed, despite the title, Dracula himself is barely in the book as a character, instead mainly working as scene-setting – although his eventual appearance is well worth the wait.

Yes, Newman has some great ideas about vampires (my favorite is the “murgatroyds,” vampires who wear capes and act like, well, stereotypical vampires in an effort to appear fashionable); yes, his use of the Ripper makes for a great hook for the book, particularly with the identity of the Ripper in the novel and his motivations. But more than anything else, every single page of Anno Dracula is just dripping with imagination and surprises. From obscure allusions to surprising cultural shifts, from character evolutions to horrific violence, Anno Dracula is, first and foremost, a fantastic piece of storytelling. I got swept up into this ambitious, wonderful world, and I’m glad to know that Newman kept it going – I’m guessing that he’s like me, and just didn’t want to have to leave it.

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Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears / *** ½

371638A collection of 21 stories inspired by fairy tales, Ruby Slippers, Golden Tears can be hard to describe. Yes, generally, the collection favors dark, “mature” takes on fairy tales (sexuality and violence are prevalent here). Yes, there’s a nice feminist undercurrent here, with passive women characters being given more agency. But really, the biggest weakness of Ruby Slippers is also its biggest strength: its diversity in approach. Some stories modernize the fairy tales, while others retell classic ones from a different perspective. Some are funny, some are horrific, some are dramatic. And while that leads to a more variety-filled and surprising experience, it also keeps the collection from feeling as cohesive or unified as it feels like it should, and leads to a bumpy reading experience as we jump from genre to genre and tone to tone.

That shouldn’t be taken to mean that there aren’t some fantastic stories here. John Brunner’s “The Emperor Who Had Never Seen a Dragon” dives into (what I assume is) Chinese folklore to tell the story of a demanding, arrogant emperor and his quest for glory, while Ellen Steiber’s “The Fox Wife” takes on the Japanese trickster fox. Gahan Wilson brings his usual dark humor to “Hansel and Grettel,” turning the iconic orphans into cocky social climbers who always feel the need to outdo everyone else. Roberta Lannes’s “Roach in Loafers” brings Puss in Boots (despite the anthology’s comment that this is “The Elves and the Shoemaker,” this is a fairly obvious “Puss in Boots” homage) to modern-day society with a great twist and a sense of humor. “Billy Fearless,” by Nancy Collins, creates a rural fairy tale with a wonderful voice, and Delia Sherman’s “The Printer’s Daughter” ends the collection on a surprisingly sweet and funny note, following a printer that’s made his daughter half out of sermons and half out of, shall we say, “adult” material.

That sounds like a lot of great material, and to be fair, the collection feels generally strong. There aren’t any pure misfires that I can think of, and a decent percentage of good ones. But the problem comes in how vague many of the stories go, feeling as though referring to fairy tales or just telling them in a new way should be appeal enough. That’s preferable to the cavalcade of “grimdark” stories, which mainly find ways to tell the fairy tales with added emphasis on brutality and violence. “The Princess and the Pea” becomes about a sadistic ruler and his mutilated servant who just wants to see women die. The updated “Match Girl” becomes a tour of rape and prostitution. “Beauty and the Beast” becomes about the pursuit of happiness and the desire to take it by force. And so on and so forth. It’s not that any of them are ever quite bad, per se, but it so often feels violent for its own sake, and without as much interesting to say as you would hope, other than “oh, I reimagined this fairy tale and now it’s for adults.”

The thing is, there are some great stories in Ruby Slippers, and a few that will no doubt stick with me. But it’s the rare case where some more focus and editorial control might help the collection – it would help it feel more focused, perhaps, but it could also cut down on the “fairy tales after dark” vibe that the collection falls into sometimes. It’s a decent collection, with some strong highlights, but I can’t say I’d recommend reading it all of a piece.

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Samurai Jack (Season 5) / *****

samurai-jack-posterI won’t lie to you: my first reaction, as the credits rolled over the last episode of Samurai Jack that we would ever get, was disappointment. Oh, sure, we got an ending, but it was a weak one, tucked into an episode that felt rushed and hurried. No, I didn’t mind the Pyrrhic nature of the victory, and I loved the beautiful, haunting final minutes of the episode. But that final showdown – was that really how it ended? It was…well, it was anticlimactic, and a bit hurried, and just…I dunno. It was a bit of a fizzle.

But then, right after the credits rolled, Adult Swim ran a promo for the marathon they were going to do of this entire final, revived season – a season that we had had no reason to ever expect, a season that gave us closure on a show that I, along with many others, had thought would simply fall between the cracks of time. And as this long promo ran, and recapped the great season, it drove something home to me: to focus too much on the ending of Samurai Jack is to miss the greatness of this final season, and to miss the joys that this show brought me, week in and week out.

See, Samurai Jack was never a show about its story. Nominally, yes, it was the story of a samurai trapped in the future, where the warlord he opposed had become the cruel ruler of the planet. But in reality, it was a show that lived and died by its style, that succeeded not because of what was happened, but how it all happened. This was a show that eschewed dialogue, that let everything be conveyed visually, that wasn’t afraid to embrace dark screens, or stylized animation, or to toss out visual gags when unexpected. But more than anything else, Samurai Jack was a show about style – about the way it told its story. (The example I always fall back on is the episode about the blind archers, in which Jack learns to fight blindfolded – a feat the show conveyed by letting the screen go black, only to have the elements fade in as he heard them and identified them by noise. You can watch the clip here, if you’d like.)

And really, season 5 was no exception to that; it was a triumph of astonishing style, with multiple sequences every week that took my breath away. From the jagged shadows of a bloody Jack being tended to be a wolf to an underground cavern scored to a Morricone-inspired tune, from the haunting and beautiful final images to the oil-style painting that capped the penultimate episode, Samurai Jack made its way by telling a story visually, letting animation do the heavy lifting and letting the voice actors support the images, rather than the other way around.

Nonetheless, season 5 of Samurai Jack told a rich story, following up on a hero whose isolated, lost nature has only become more pronounced and haunting since the last time we met him, with madness settling in around the edges. This is a hero who cannot return home, who cannot protect his family, and who seems destined to forever wander the earth, isolated and alone. And over the course of season 5, we watch as Jack struggles to figure out his purpose, and what his quest even means. We see what first appears to be fan-service cameos, only to realize that what showrunner Genndy Tartakovsky is doing is showing us that Jack has changed this world, and for the better. And best of all, we watch as Jack finds an equal – another outcast – and for the first time, meets a kindred spirit.

And yes, it all built up to a fight that was somewhat anticlimactic. But the longer I’ve thought about that, the more okay I am with that fact. Aku may have been the villain of this story, but he was never Jack’s true nemesis. Indeed, Jack’s greatest nemesis of season 5 may have been himself – a warrior version of himself cast into doubt, into questioning, into a sense of hopelessness – and into a funk where he couldn’t even be sure he was the hero any longer. Tartakovsky drove that question home beautifully, as Jack’s sword, for the first time, began to slice not just robots, but also human beings. That’s heady, complex fare, and Tartakovsky doesn’t give us easy answers to it all, showing both the brutality of the fight and its necessity.

And so, by the time Jack fights Aku, it’s all over but the shouting. Jack has unified himself, found a purpose, pulled himself together, and realized his meaning. Why shouldn’t the fight be fast? This was never about Aku vs. Jack. It was about Jack’s journey, and what it would make of him by the end – a choice that makes the finale’s final moments of quiet and peace all the more effective. For all of the drama, for all of the action, for all of the imagination, the show’s final moments give us closure on Jack itself – and it’s the perfect way to end it.

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Recent Read Round-Up

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.

thehalloweenchildren-ebook-largeThe 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. 17399863So 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 cover109911-mediumOur 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). 81ldr2bwow7lA series of essays written over 25 years after the initial publication of Brave New WorldRevisited 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: *****

Amazon: The Halloween ChildrenThe Call of AgonOur Only Chance | Brave New World Revisited

Hogfather, by Terry Pratchett / *****


“All right,” said Susan. “I’m not stupid. You’re saying humans need… fantasies to make life bearable.”

REALLY? AS IF IT WAS SOME KIND OF PINK PILL? NO. HUMANS NEED FANTASY TO BE HUMAN. TO BE THE PLACE WHERE THE FALLING ANGEL MEETS THE RISING APE.

“Tooth fairies? Hogfathers? Little—”

YES. AS PRACTICE. YOU HAVE TO START OUT LEARNING TO BELIEVE THE LITTLE LIES.

“So we can believe the big ones?”

YES. JUSTICE. MERCY. DUTY. THAT SORT OF THING.

“They’re not the same at all!”

YOU THINK SO? THEN TAKE THE UNIVERSE AND GRIND IT DOWN TO THE FINEST POWDER AND SIEVE IT THROUGH THE FINEST SIEVE AND THEN SHOW ME ONE ATOM OF JUSTICE, ONE MOLECULE OF MERCY. AND YET—

Death waved a hand.

AND YET YOU ACT AS IF THERE IS SOME IDEAL ORDER IN THE WORLD, AS IF THERE IS SOME…SOME RIGHTNESS IN THE UNIVERSE BY WHICH IT MAY BE JUDGED.

“Yes, but people have got to believe that, or what’s the point—”

MY POINT EXACTLY.”

– Terry Pratchett, Hogfather


34532There may never again be another author like Terry Pratchett, and that’s a true, crushing loss for us, not only as readers, but just as human beings. Because, you see, if you’ve never read Terry Pratchett – well, first of all, you’re missing out. But if you’ve never read Pratchett, you may think you know what you’re missing out on. You may hear how funny he is – and he is undeniably that – or how wonderful Discworld is as a blending of the issues of our world and Pratchett’s wondrous fantasy creation, and you think, okay, I get it.

But what you don’t understand until you read Pratchett was how profound and humane he could be, and how astonishingly complex his seemingly “silly” stories could be. After all, who else could take the concept of Hogfather – in which Death takes over for Discworld’s version of Santa Claus – and turn it into a profound, complex exploration of the importance of faith, belief, and fairy tales as a fundamental aspect of humanity? No one, I’d argue…and even if someone tried, it’s hard to imagine them doing it as effortlessly, comically, and brilliantly as Pratchett manages.

Because, rest assured, this is a laugh-out-loud, embarrass yourself by giggling as you read kind of book. It’s not just Pratchett’s prose, which is always hilarious, and packed with incredible lines that most authors would give their whole careers to write (take this gem: “Getting an education was a bit like a communicable sexual disease. It made you unsuitable for a lot of jobs and then you had the urge to pass it on”). It’s his incredible storytelling, which follows any number of plotlines, juggles them effortlessly, and keeps them all moving at the same time, whether it be the story of demented Assassin Mr. Teatime (pronounced Tee-ah-tim-eh, thank you very much) and his quest to kill the Hogfather (Discworld’s Santa Claus), Susan Sto-Helit’s efforts to figure out what’s going on with her grandfather Death, or – and best of all – Death’s increasingly absurd efforts to take the place of the Hogfather, which culminates in a long set of scenes at a local mall that rank among the funniest scenes ever written, full stop.

And if that were all there was to Hogfather, that would be great. But it’s not. Instead, Pratchett uses his gleefully madcap plot – which incorporates a slew of local criminals, the secret life of tooth fairies, the god of hangovers, and so much more – to begin discussing the nature of belief, the importance of fairy tales to human existence, the nature of folk tales, and so much more. And if that’s not enough, he still manages to get in his jabs at human existence – at the cruelties of tragedies in the holiday season, the hypocrisy of charity, and so much more. It’s a book whose satirical edge is sharp and takes no prisoners, and yet never passes the chance to make you laugh, and laugh hard…but it will hit you in the gut right after it.

Which brings me back to that quote I opened the review with, and the sheer power and beauty of the ideas it’s expressing. Because Pratchett was the kind of author who could give you a scene with Death as Santa handing out swords to children as his animal escort causes havoc in the background, and have you laughing…and then leave you pondering the bewildering nature of human belief in ideals and morality. And any author who can do either of those things is worth reading…but someone who could do both really can’t ever be replaced, and reading Hogfather again for the holiday season only underlines what a genius he was and how much we lost when he left us. More than that, though, it’s a cynical, snarky, satirical look at the world – and it also has a way of making you feel better about the world, and people, than you might ever expect it to. And that’s a wonderful way to celebrate the holiday season.

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Bernie and The Lost Girl, by Steve LeBel / ****

bernie-and-the-lost-girl-387x600A couple of years ago, I read Steve LeBel’s The Universe Builders: Bernie and the Putty, an engaging and wholly original tale about a school where young gods are trained in the art of universe building. It wasn’t enough for Bernie and the Putty to be about a kid struggling in school; it also managed to chart the development of universes, get into the complexities of evolution, and add in development of not only Bernie’s world, but also the world(s) being created by the students. It was something wholly original and unique, and to put it simply, I loved it. (You can read my review of the original here if you’re interested.)

So, with the release of a new Universe Builders book, I was naturally excited. I loved this world, and loved LeBel’s ambition and originality. And despite the fact that I knew this was a bit more of a prequel than a sequel, I was just eager to have more of this to read.

So, here’s the good: it’s still just as funny, character-driven, and engaging as the first book. Once again, LeBel shows a gift for making his characters drive the tale, rather than focusing too much on the plotting; indeed, although the story here is simple – a young girl god goes missing, and Bernie goes looking for her in the woods outside of the town. It’s a simpler story than the first novel (which befits its novella length), and rather than alternating between the “real” world and the artificial ones being created, it finds its novelty through exploring the wilderness outside of the God’s city. More than that, it touches on some odd details about that wilderness – most notably, the way that it’s become a sort of “dumping ground” for creations that never went anywhere.

The downside of Bernie and the Lost Girl, though, is the fact that it never really makes use of its central conceit – that of gods training and practicing their universes – and instead, ends up feeling a little more generic than you’d hope for. That’s a letdown, and even though Bernie and the Lost Girl is an engaging, fun little adventure story, it doesn’t pack in the imagination and creativity that made Bernie and the Putty such a great read. Indeed, it almost feels like it’s taking a great environment and squandering it, instead telling a story that could almost be set anywhere.

That’s not really the end of the world, mind you; I still really enjoyed Bernie and the Lost Girl, and it shows off a lot of what LeBel does well – create interesting and sympathetic characters, flesh out his worlds, and propel his plot along. It just feels like a bit of a step back in scope and imagination, and I couldn’t help but feel a little disappointed by that. Nevertheless, it’s still a fun read, and if you’re a fan of Bernie, it’s fun to see him develop along as a person, to say nothing of the glimpses of the larger world around him. But here’s hoping that the next entry starts to tap back into those ideas that made the first book so memorable and unique.

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