For the past couple of weeks, my wife and I have been on a vacation to Alaska – a cruise up there, followed by a week of driving around the interior. And while the vacation was great, that also meant that I did a lot of reading during all of that. In an effort to make all of those reviews a little less overwhelming, I’m going to do a series of shorter review digests, covering a handful of my vacation reads in each.
I’ve been advocating that people read Joe R. Lansdale’s Hap and Leonard series for a long time, so it’s nice that The Big Book of Hap and Leonard has come out to give me a simple way to let people try the series on for size. A compilation of two earlier collections – entitled, respectively, Hap and Leonard and Hap and Leonard Ride Again – the collection contains two full novellas (Dead Aim and Hyenas), a half dozen short stories, a comic book script based off of one of the stories, an “interview” between Lansdale and his two creations, and an essay by Lansdale explaining the origins of some of the books and the characters. That’s a ton of great material, but honestly, even if all The Big Book of Hap and Leonard contained was the two novellas, it would still be a must buy. The fact that there’s so many other pieces, and so much demonstration of Lansdale’s versatility – a couple of variations on locked-room mysteries, a heartbreaking tale of adolescent cruelty, a brief vignette about the passing of time, and more – is only icing on the cake.
There’s no one who writes like Lansdale out there – no one who can match that rapid-fire Texas banter between Hap and Leonard, no one who can move so effortlessly between light comedy and horrifying violence, between human cruelty and earnest kindness. Maybe that’s what keeps me reading the Hap and Leonard series; yes, they’re incredibly well-written; yes, they’re frequently hilarious, and they make me laugh out loud so often; yes, I love these characters. But more than anything else, there’s a heart to Hap and Leonard that’s undeniable. These are mysteries, but they’re mysteries that refuse to flinch from the unspeakable things that humans do to each other, and the reasons we do them – and that’s no small thing. That Hap and Leonard both do what they do partially because they refuse to not fight the good fight…well, there’s something I love about that, and about Lansdale’s refusal to let racism and hatred win the day. Rating: *****
Long before he became famous for helming a small, independent TV production named Game of Thrones, I knew David Benioff’s name as an author. His first novel, The 25th Hour, quietly floored me when I read it (prior to its superb film adaptation by Spike Lee). And yet, for whatever reason, I never got around to reading Benioff’s second novel, City of Thieves, until recently. And having read it…well, I’m not sure it was worth the wait.
Set during the siege of Leningrad, City of Thieves tells the story of Lev, a young Russian Jew who’s stayed in the city to prove that he’s a man and to defend his hometown. After he gets arrested for breaking curfew, though, he and a fellow prisoner get sent on a fool’s errand: find a dozen eggs for a powerful general, who needs them for his daughter’s wedding.
So far, so good. There’s a lot to love about Benioff’s setup for the novel, which allows him to engage in some dark commentary about war, human nature, survival, and so much more. (The ending to the egg saga is a cruel twist of the knife that, in many ways, is the best moment of the book.) And there’s little denying that Benioff’s sense of time and place are carefully and beautifully constructed. There’s an incredible sense of cold that permeates City of Thieves, a sense of starvation and desperation that’s impossible to ignore. This is a land under siege, but it’s also a Russian land, with all the stoicism and dark humor that comes with the territory.
And yet, for all of that, City of Thieves left me cold so often. Maybe it was the overly contrived, screenwriter-y tics of Lev’s companion Kolya, who so often felt less like a person and more like an author’s construction of quips, sexual commentary, and literary theory. (The ongoing plot thread about Kolya’s favorite Russian writer is a prime example of this, turning into something that felt like a movie’s shorthand for getting into the head of a character, rather than a real thing someone would do.) Then there’s some of the plot mechanics along the way, most notably a game of chess that couldn’t be more foreshadowed and set up without neon lights and arrows involved, and once again feels less like a genuine moment and more like an absurd screenplay idea.
I didn’t hate City of Thieves; the mood and setting of the book are absolutely phenomenal, and there’s no shortage of small little moments along the way that are almost perfect in their simplicity (again, that final moment in the ongoing story will stick with me for a long time, as will the general’s last lines in the novel). But the more Benioff constructs his plot and story, the more obvious the seams are, turning the book into something that betrays its best moments in favor of big, silly, bludgeoning obviousness. Rating: ***
Fantasy series are notoriously hard to end. How do you do justice to whatever big, world-changing events you’ve been setting up, but also provide some sort of closure for your main characters? In other words, how do you balance the macro and the micro – a problem anywhere in fantasy, but one that goes double in the ending? And that was something I was even more worried about when it came to The Stone Sky, the final volume in N.K. Jemisen’s incredible Broken Earth trilogy. Could Jemisen stick the landing on one of the best fantasy series I’ve read in years, if not ever?
Did she ever.
Part of what’s made The Broken Earth such an effective series is the way it’s never lost sight of the personal stakes in all of its saga. Yes, this is a story about a civilization wracked by terrible devastation – devastation that comes along regularly and horribly. Yes, it’s a story of magic users – orogenes, in the parlance of the series – who can control the tremors of the planet, but can also wield that same magic as the most devastating weapon imaginable. And, yes, as becomes clearer and clearer during The Stone Sky, it’s the story of how all of this happened – how humanity may have doomed itself.
But for all of that – and make no mistake, Jemisen’s overarching story is incredible – it’s also always been the story of a mother who is worried about her daughter. It’s the story of a social class that has been rejected for centuries, and who are starting to realize that there is no future for them unless they stand up and demand to be treated as human beings. It’s the story of a young girl who’s realizing the flaws in her parents, and her desire to fix all of the pain and suffering that she and others like her have suffered. It’s the story of how we must sacrifice ourselves for the future, and more intimately, how parents must give and give until there’s nothing left if they want to leave behind a future for their children.
In other words, Jemisen mixes the macro and the micro seamlessly, allowing the two to comment on each other and reflect back and forth, linking the fate of the planet to the fate of this mother and daughter, each of whom is on their own path to wisdom and cataclysmic choices. But it’s also a story about the communities they have built along the way, and the way our friendships can shape us and define us and change us – often for the better – and how trying to survive the world alone is so often a fool’s errand.
All of this sounds vague, I know. But the fact is, for all of the rich lore and the world-building and the twists and the science-fiction that sneaks in and the fantastical elements, what made me love The Stone Sky was that it had all of those elements, and still chose to focus on its characters first and foremost. And by the time The Stone Sky ends, every one of the million small choices Jemisen has made along the way become clearer and clearer, working towards the messages and themes of the books. Even the often-questioned decision to write in second-person, whose purpose started to become clear in the second novel, becomes crystal clear by the end of book three, leading to an unexpected emotional wallop.
That the series can do all of that while also telling a story of the fate of the planet, a war against nature itself, generations of conflict, science-fiction plot threads, and the nature of magic – my cup runneth over. I loved this book, loved this series, and am excited that there’s more Jemisen waiting for me to jump into. Rating: *****