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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mother! / *****

mother-posterNo matter what you think of mother!, Darren Aronofsky’s surreal, go-for-broke horror / black comedy / allegory / surrealist exercise / cinematic experience, you certainly can’t say that Aronofsky is phoning anything in. A director who’s almost always plunged into excess and operatic style touches with glee and abandon (the sparse, stripped-down The Wrestler aside), mother! is pure Aronofsky: stylish, mind-bending, impeccably executed, and utterly, 100% unique.

None of which is to say that you’ll necessarily like this movie, to be fair. Really, mother!’s mixed reception is completely understandable, even without taking into account the film’s completely misleading and inaccurate marketing campaign. This is a film that defies easy categorization, and one that starts off as grounded, strange drama before escalating to madness and operatic allegory without ever looking back. It’s a film that’s best appreciated as an experience, taking it all in as one would a poem, and trying to interpret it all, rather than embracing it on anything close to a literal level. And that’s not something that a lot of people are comfortable with – and that goes double if you’re expecting a conventional horror film here.

But for those who are open to what Aronofsky is doing, mother! is gloriously insane and  gleefully anarchic – a reminder of what cinema and film can do that no other medium can do. Even in the early going, Aronofsky’s control of staging and mood is impeccable, but as the film hits its astonishing, chaotic final act, it becomes something wholly else: wild, careening, ambitious, surreal, terrifying, exciting, and overwhelming. And, most importantly, in Aronofsky’s hands, it becomes something captivating and unforgettable – a surreal nightmare turned real, an escalating portrait of madness, mania, and selfishness.

Much has been made out of the question of what mother! “means,” which is simultaneously a compelling question and a fully inadequate way to describe what makes the film great. Yes, there’s no denying that in many ways, the film is a religious allegory, one concerned with how our relationship with the divine is still eternally selfish and driven by our own needs; that the film deals with climate change and the way we abuse the gifts of nature is all a part of that. And yet, at the same time, couldn’t it all be a scathing look at the life of celebrities and public figures, and the difficulty in drawing a line between private and public? Or couldn’t it be a portrait of codependent relationships and what happens when you invest everything in someone else and have nothing left of your own? To which I’d say: yes, and yes! Or maybe no! So much of the joy of the film comes from the way its meaning, like so much art, is in the eye of the beholder. mother! won’t hold your hand, it won’t give you a guide; it’s up to you to decide what it means to you, and really, I’ve yet to hear a take that didn’t resonate with me.

But even though mother! all but demands you spin time unpacking and understanding it, doing so doesn’t get me any closer to unpacking the experience of watching this movie, and conveying the astonishing impact it has on a viewer. It doesn’t capture Jennifer Lawrence’s incredible performance as she reacts with confusion, bewilderment, unease, and horror at the unfolding insanity around her, nor does it capture the way Javier Bardem can embody both wrath and beneficence perfectly. It doesn’t come close to giving you a sense of the film’s gloriously dark sense of humor, as scenes constantly go in unexpected directions. (The brilliant crew at The Next Picture Show podcast did an amazing episode about the way the film evokes the work of Luis Buñuel, focusing on The Exterminating Angel; I can’t recommend it enough.) It doesn’t give you a sense of the unease as people reveal their darkest sides, as brotherly squabbles turn bloody, or movements of love become all out battles to the death. And most of all, nothing I can write can explain the excitement, uncertainty, and sheer wildness of the film’s final act, which is one of the boldest, gutsiest, and most astonishing sequences I’ve seen in years.

mother! isn’t for all tastes, pure and simple; as my friend Adam said, I bet a lot of CinemaScore people would have gone lower than F if allowed. But I’m so glad it exists; at a point where it feels like almost every movie is a reboot, a sequel, or a franchise, mother! is defiantly unique – a middle finger to easily quantifiable films and a love letter to what cinema can accomplish. No, it’s not for everyone, and that’s what makes it great. Because if it’s for you, trust me, you’re in for an experience you will never forget, and a film that helps remind you of why you fell in love with film in the first place.

IMDb

A Time of Torment, by John Connolly / *****

A brief note: I actually read A Time of Torment a year ago, when it was first released, but apparently my review never actually published, or perhaps was eaten by some Internet goblins. Since I just finished Connolly’s newest novel, I figured this would be as good a time as any to get it put back up here.


     “I used to think this was all about good and evil,” said Rickett, “but it’s not.”
     “No?”
     “There’s a kind of evil that isn’t even in opposition to good, because good is an irrelevance to it. It’s a foulness that’s right at the heart of existence, born with the stuff of the universe. It’s in the decay to which all things tend. It is, and it always will be, but in dying, we leave it behind.”
     “And while we’re alive?”
     “We set our souls against it, and our saints and angels, too.” He patted Parker on the shoulder. “Especially the destroying ones.”
     Parker walked to his car, got in, and started the engine. The past is more real than the present, he thought, and we carry our histories with us.

– John Connolly, A Time of Torment


a-time-of-torment-9781501118326_hrI’m going to be straightforward here: John Connolly is one of the best writers working today. Period. Full stop. His prose is astonishing – it displays a poet’s ability with words, a gift for finding beauty even in the most nightmarish of places. (That quote above? It’s an aside – not even a major moment of the book. That’s how good he is.) But he also has the soul of a horror writer, creating some of the most disturbing, unsettling, and truly nightmarish characters, settings, and entities that I have ever read – and I am an avid horror fan, to put it mildly. And in book after book, Connolly has delivered gripping plotting, unsettling horrors, a great sense of humor, and a gift for writing that is unparalleled.

And even with all of this, A Time of Torment may be his best work to date. And that is no small feat.

A Time of Torment is the latest (#14!) in the Charlie Parker series, an ongoing series which defies easy description. Nominally, it is a crime series, one that finds Parker investigating cases and dealing with horrific crimes, often accompanied by his friends Angel and Louis. But that quick overview doesn’t quite prepare you for the darkness and true evil that lurks at the core of the Parker books, which have become an examination of good and evil, of morality, of the nature of human cruelty, and more than that, an unblinking look at human depravity and insanity. And as the series has continued, the lines between “reality” and the “supernatural” have blurred, often overlapping until there’s no clear distinction between the two.

But A Time of Torment is different from the rest of the books – and that difference lies in Parker. Parker’s inner war with himself – his nature, his choices, his actions – has anchored every one of the Parker novels to date, and Connolly’s willingness to engage with his character’s guilt (and lack thereof) has been part of the series’ greatness to date. But the events of the last few books have changed Parker irrevocably, forcing his hand and turning him from an unwilling member of this battle and into a hunter. And A Time of Torment finds him embracing that role, searching for the source and heart of the evils that have beset him, and using those around him in an effort to cleanse this world.

It’s a dangerous, ruthless new version of Parker – and given that Parker wasn’t exactly weak to begin with, that’s saying something. And yet, he’s undeniably the same man; A Time of Torment opens with Parker tracking down a man who is responsible for a series of murders, and rendering his own judgment against him. But that’s only the start-up for A Time of Torment, which finds Parker helping a man who worries that he has angered a small West Virginia community known as The Cut – and perhaps an entity known as “the Dead King”.

From there, A Time of Torment unfolds with the relentlessness of a nightmare, as we see not only what the Cut is capable of, but the evil that it seems to inspire in those who inhabit it. More than that, though, we see what Parker looks like when he is on a mission, as he, Angel, and Louis slowly focus in on the Cut with the precision of a laser, but the devastation of a force of nature.

A Time of Torment is part crime story, part thriller, and part unsettling horror novel. The crimes and murders at the core of the book are horrifying beyond words, and the glimpses Connolly gives us into the hearts of these men disturbing. But even with that, what grips you about the Parker books is the riveting plotting, which displays Connolly’s incredible gift for starting with a simple incident and letting it expand until you feel that you’ve entered into a whole second world, one filled with shadows and creatures best left unseen. And his depiction of the Cut ranks among his best examples of this, bringing to life a community that defines itself in opposition to the world around it, and enforces its own rules with ruthless force – all while being infused with the constant presence of some thing at its core that corrupts everything around it.

Indeed, it’s that incredible sense of atmosphere and dread that makes Connolly’s books so strong and stand out so much. Yes, his books can be surprisingly funny – there’s a recurring plot thread involving Angel’s obsession with restrooms that never stops being hilarious every time it pops up – but what lingers is the sense of a world, one where evil is very real, where there is a corrupting influence in our reality…and yet, also a world where there is a force of good. But when that force of good comes in the form of the violence and destruction that Parker brings, that becomes a source of ambiguity – a shade of gray where Connolly excels.

Here’s the thing, in short: A Time of Torment just may be the best book Connolly has written yet, and that’s in a career where he has written some of the best thrillers I’ve ever read – and I am a voracious, obsessive reader. To miss this book is to miss a masterpiece, plain and simple. Should you start at the beginning of the series? Almost definitely – but whatever the case, read this book, and be scared, excited, moved, and terrified.

Amazon

Horror Triple Feature

mpw-39550One of my favorite auteurs of 80’s trash horror is Frank Henenlotter, director behind the wonderfully gonzo Basket Case and its equally twisted, entertaining cousin, Brain Damage. But as much as I love those two, I hadn’t managed to see Henenlotter’s famous follow-up Frankenhooker until today. Luckily, it was worth the wait; while it may have leaned more heavily and clearly on comedy than the other two films, it’s no less wonderfully silly and demented than any other Henenlotter I’ve seen. A very loose retelling of FrankensteinFrankenhooker follows a mad scientist who decides to resurrect his girlfriend after a gruesome lawnmower accident. The problem? There’s not exactly enough of her left…which means it’s time to hit pre-Guiliani Times Square and find some women of the night to use for parts. The result is gorey, splattery insanity, with self-induced cranial pressure relief (in other word: drilling into your own skull), electrified kisses, and, oh yes, exploding hookers. It’s all done with tongue firmly in cheek, with Henenlotter steering more overtly into comedy, but the result is absolutely entertaining as anything, from the mad scientist’s constant self-encouragement to the ludicrous facial expressions on the reconstructed girlfriend. I don’t think Frankenhooker is as good as Basket Case or Brain Damage – I enjoy those film’s ability to balance horror and comedy more than this – but I had a blast watching it anyway. Rating: ****

poster_thirstTo say that Thirst is easily the weakest film I’ve seen to date by Chan-Wook Park sounds like a harshest criticism than it necessarily should be. After all, this is the director behind such films as OldboyLady VengeanceStoker, and The Handmaiden, just to name a few – it would be awfully hard to make it to the top tier of that kind of filmography. And even with Thirst‘s flaws – which largely spring from the film’s pacing issues – there’s little denying that Park brings his usual flair, bizarre sensibility, and beautiful style to bear to this vampire story. After all, who else would let his vampire film largely render its vampiric elements almost irrelevant, instead turning it into a twisted love story about a priest who becomes a vampire thanks to a medical experiment gone wrong, and who then falls in love with the unhappy wife of a childhood friend. If that doesn’t sound like your typical vampire film, well, Thirst really isn’t typical in any way, apart from using vampirism much as Bram Stoker did back in Dracula: as a metaphor for repressed desire, lust, and a wish to break beyond the social and religious strictures that are governing one’s life. Of course, this being a Korean film, exactly how far the characters are willing to go…well, let’s just say that things escalate quite a bit from the early scenes where our “hero” is trying to stick to stolen blood from hospital patients. Thirst is too long by at least twenty minutes, and it doesn’t quite make its lead female character work as well as I wish it did; she feels more simplistic than Park tends to let his female characters be (especially in something like The Handmaiden). Still, even with those flaws, Thirst is rich, interesting fare – a more thoughtful, complicated take on the vampire tale than we often get, and one with enough substance to keep thoughtful audiences satisfied while still delivering violence and horror (and style) to spare. Rating: ****

cronos-mondo-criterion-posterI’m a big, big fan of filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, whose fantastical sensibility – and how it blends together with his grasp on horror – has led to some truly great cinema, including Pan’s LabyrinthThe Devil’s Backbone, and most recently (and one of my favorites), Crimson Peak. But somehow, I had never gotten a chance to see del Toro’s feature debut, Cronos, until my wife bought me Criterion’s new Trilogía de Guillermo del Toro box set. Even here, as he’s just getting started and working under a limited budget, there’s no denying del Toro’s rich visual style, his astonishing imagination, nor his unique approach to creatures and horror. The tale of a Mexican antiques dealer (played by Federico Luppi) who stumbles across an ancient invention said to hold the secret of immortality, del Toro brings his usual mixture of fairy tale and horror to bear here, spending equal time establishing the charming relationship between Luppi and his granddaughter and the surreal horrors that this invention can unleash. Like many of del Toro’s films, it slides between fantastical visions and bloody horror  without warning, which makes for an even better watch for the daring viewer (and that doesn’t even get into the genre elements that del Toro allows the film to slowly incorporate). Even better, there are signs even here of del Toro’s astonishing imagination, as he dives into the gears – and weirdly organic elements – of this invention, turning something simple into something arcane and eldritch in the process. That Cronos is a solid, inventive, strange piece of horror goes without saying, knowing del Toro’s involvement; that it largely holds its own against his later work, even with its lower budget and learning curve, is all the more impressive and wonderful. Rating: **** ½

IMDb: Frankenhooker | Thirst | Cronos

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.

IMDb

Julian Comstock: A Story of 22nd-Century America, by Robert Charles Wilson / ***** 

51enpomf6alHaving read a pretty large swath of Robert Charles Wilson’s bibliography, I feel pretty comfortable in saying that I generally know what to expect from him. Wilson is a big picture kind of author; he takes what could easily be pulp sci-fi conceits – one day, the stars all disappear, all over the world; a series of monuments appear commemorating the future victories of a despotic warlord; aliens arrive at Earth and extend the offer of immortality – and explores them in remarkable depth, watching what would happen to society in the wake of such world-changing events. He explores religious, social, cultural, and even political ramifications, watching how a single moment can change our pictures of ourselves and our society.

And yet, while that aspect of Wilson is completely evident in Julian Comstock – this is, as the novel’s subtitle suggests, a novel of the 22nd century, set in an America that survived after oil ran out by turning back the technological clock, and at the same time, turned itself into a religious theocracy – this is also a wildly different book for him, one that feels more character-driven, more personal, and less sprawling. It’s a story more intimate than any I’ve really seen from Wilson before, and for all of its rich ideas and worldbuilding, at its core, it’s the story of two friends and their lives in this world so clearly inspired by ours, whether for good or for bad.

That different feel is evident as soon as the book’s structure reveals itself as a memoir – and more importantly, the memoir not of our main character, Adam Hazzard, but of his friend, the famous Julian Comstock. It follows our heroes from their unlikely boyhood together, through their times in war, all the way to the source of Julian’s fame – or infamy, depending on who you ask. It’s a humble-feeling book, one that feels like a tribute to a friend, and an effort to humanize an icon. But it’s also a great adventure story, and a coming of age story, as we watch these two boys become men and grapple with their place in the world.

If that sounds more conventional than you might expect from Wilson, well, that’s okay; rest assured, Wilson brings his usual gift for worldbuilding and scope to bear in his setting, as we come to understand more and more not only what 22nd-century America is, but how it came to be. We see how the oil shortages became rebranded as a “Tribulation,” and how the government and church came to unify. We see how the class system shifted, revolving around indentured servitude rather than freedom, and how ideas like science and Darwinism faded from the public conscience – but never went away. And that’s where Wilson finds much of his drama, as Julian becomes a crusader for science and rationalism in a world that doesn’t always welcome it.

All of that would be more than enough for most books, but Wilson brings even more to the book in the voice of our narrator, Adam Hazzard, a sheltered, less rebellious figure who doesn’t always fully appreciate the gap between what he thinks he knows and what’s really going on. (A tip: keep Google Translate handy for any passage of foreign language; the play between what people are saying and what Adam knows is always fun, and sometimes surprisingly illuminating.) Wilson plays with Adam’s naive perspective beautifully, letting him not always pick up on the subtextual relationships between people, or sometimes completely misread a situation – something Wilson never goes out of his way correct. It all works to make Adam a winning, endearing character, one whose sheltered worldview and warm, if naive, perspective give the book a rich flavor all its own.

Julian Comstock may not have the impact or scope of some of Wilson’s best works, but in the end, it may be his richest, warmest, and most accessible book. What he’s gotten away from in scope he’s picked up in characterization and vibrancy, making this one of the first books of his I’ve read that invested me more in the characters and their lives than it did the ideas and impact of its story. It’s a great read from one of the best science-fiction authors working today, and a nice reminder of how great it can be to find those moments when authors step out of their comfort zone to do something different.

Amazon