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.

Amazon
Advertisements

Coilhunter, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

51nzzo74xkl-_sy445_ql70_For a while, all I knew of Dean F. Wilson’s work was The Great Iron War series, a rich, involving steampunk war saga that I thoroughly enjoyed. Wilson’s prose was direct and effective – he had a clarity to his prose that befitted his action sequences, always keeping the battles clear, the environment understandable, and the various players clearly defined. What I didn’t realize – not until I read the first entry in Wilson’s Children of Agon series – was that Wilson’s prose was pared down and concise by design, not because that was just his style. Because Children of Agon read like Tolkien – it was epic fantasy, with dense, poetic prose and style to spare.

I mention this because, without that context, it could be easy to dismiss Coilhunter‘s prose as excessively colorful or too much. But within a couple of pages, I realized that that wasn’t a bug in Coilhunter; it was the design, creating a book that lived and breathed its Western atmosphere in every single word. With verbose killers, colorful turns of speech, and all sorts of fun writing, Coilhunter ends up being a lot of fun, and the prose is part of that, creating a rich, lived-in tapestry.

That Wilson is good as Westerns isn’t a surprise; what’s surprising to me is that Coilhunter is a Western in the first place, since it’s technically set in the same world as Wilson’s grim Great Iron War series. Wilson’s taken one of his more fascinating character – the titular Coilhunter, who makes his living as a bounty hunter in the less settled parts of that world – and written a book around him. The plot is pretty traditional fare, especially for the Western genre: the Coilhunter chases bounties, only to find that one he’s taken up could lead him to the killers of his family. But Wilson takes it on with style and panache, bringing his sci-fi steampunk Western world to vivid life, filling the pages with interesting characters and odd locales, and making it stand on its own.

More than that, Wilson has a great lead character in the Coilhunter, whose gadgets, tricks, and lethal abilities make him both a great hero and an exciting one to watch. Like so many Westerns, the question isn’t really if the Coilhunter is going to succeed; the question is, how will he pull it off. Even more to the point, though, Wilson makes his Western world all its own, making it stand out from the Great Iron War to the point where it feels less like a spinoff and more like its own series. With bounty hunter towns, old friends, and spectacular lawless zones, Wilson brings the world – and the characters – to life in a satisfying way, all while peppering things with his usual strong action sequences.

If there’s a knock on Coilhunter, it’s that the story feels more generic and formulaic than I’ve come to expect from Wilson; there’s little sense of surprise in what happens here or how things unfold. None of that keeps the book from being engaging or entertaining, mind you; it’s executed well enough that I tore through it quickly, eager to stay in this world for a while. But I’m more excited to see what happens in the next books in the series, now that Wilson has set the stage and cleared off some of the necessary backstory to get things moving. Here’s hoping it comes soon.

Amazon

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

A Cure for Wellness / **** ½

cureforwellnessposterAs a movie fan, there can be little more dispiriting than feeling like you’re in a film era that’s so filled with franchises, remakes, sequels, and comic book films that there’s little room for originality. Watching great movies like The Nice Guys fade out without anyone noticing can be depressing. And as a horror fan, the problem can be even worse, with more and more horror fans turning to independent and fringe films in the hopes of finding something original, weird, and unsettling.

And yet, the astonishingly weird, atypical, surreal A Cure for Wellness proves that the studio system can still surprise you sometimes, even if it’s entirely possible that this is a fluke that won’t be repeated often. (That it happened twice in the past few years – with the last being the great, underrated Gothic romance Crimson Peak – is a sign of hope, though.) Maybe it takes the clout of so-called “visionary” director Gore Verbinski to get something like this made, though the poor box office performance doesn’t bode well for it happening often.

(A side note: I’ve always kind of laughed at that “visionary” tag with Verbinski, whose filmography is nothing if not erratic and uneven; while he’s made some great movies, he’s never been someone whose style would earn the title “visionary.” And yet, I’d give it to him for this one, as will become clear in a bit.)

And that’s a shame, because A Cure for Wellness is a blast. It’s undeniably strange – one of the most nutzoid, balls-to-the-wall studio horror films, just in terms of how far it’s willing to go in its surreal nightmare of a story. And more than that, its visual style is absolutely astonishing, turning the film into a true Gothic horror story with a bit of a steampunk vibe to it, as we lose our way in a medical institution set up in an old castle, and find our connections to the past from there.

As with many Gothic stories, the plot is almost beside the point – it’s all about the style – but Verbinski and screenwriter Justin Haythe give us a great hook, following a driven, ambitious Wall Street type (Dane DeHaan) as he’s sent to retrieve the company’s CEO from a retreat in the Swiss Alps. But once he arrives, he starts realizing that this isn’t the kind of place that people want to leave, for whatever reason – and he starts finding his own departure to be similarly difficult.

Verbinski and Haythe start off with some meaty ideas about whether ambition and greed are our modern plagues, and there’s no denying the film’s interest in separating the modern world from the old. But ultimately, that’s window dressing for the psychological thumbscrews he’s got waiting, and really, the film benefits as it starts leaving behind its pretenses of theme and diving into its nightmarish visuals. From tubs of swirling eels to a torchlit dance sequence, from a perfectly reflecting pool to an ominously twitching handle, Verbinski leans hard into his style and cinematography, and the result is an absolute knockout. It’s one of those films where separating the style from the substance is missing the point; the style is the substance here, with the terror, unease, and discomfort all arising from Verbinski’s shadowy halls and surreal images.

Does it all makes sense, by the end? More or less, in that Gothic sort of way, with a few niggling questions. But really, by the end, I was too swept up in this strange world to care – I was disturbed by the images I was seeing, in awe of the lush world Verbinski had created, and thrilled by just how far – and how bonkers – Verbinski had gotten away with making this film. The result isn’t a perfect film by any means – DeHaan is adequate, at best; there’s a CGI animal scene that’s fairly bad; the ending is overlong, even if it contains one of my favorite moments – but it’s lush, it’s original, it’s beautifully filmed, and more than anything else, it feels like little else out there, all while still succeeding at being a nasty little piece of horror driven by its technique. And that is more than enough for me.

IMDb

Hometaker, by Dean F. Wilson / ****

33234223And so, Dean F. Wilson’s “Great Iron War” series comes to an end. This is a series that’s undeniably grown on me over the course of its length; while I enjoyed the first novel in many ways, I couldn’t help but feel that Wilson wasn’t giving us enough backstory, enough depth, to really make the series work. Yes, there was a war; yes, there was an invading race, referred to as the “Demons”, but they felt faceless and unknowable. The action was great, the world interesting, but it was hard to invest yourself in this world, given that Wilson seemed so committed to a minimum of exposition.

And yet, over the course of these six books, Wilson slowly fleshed out his world, revealing new races and characters, exploring the hidden depths of his often sprawling cast, and turning the invading race into something more complex and interesting than I ever would have expected. Even better, he did it without ever really changing his style – he writes economically, clearly, and lets the story reveal itself through the characters, their dialogue, and the necessities of the plot. And over the course of the six volumes – each named after a key device around which that section of the war revolves – Wilson broadened his scope beautifully, letting us see more and more of his characters, investing us in their fates, and grappling with the hard questions that I had often assumed he was ignoring. Just what are the “demons”, and are they all as bad as we thought? What happens when the war is over? How do you win a war when they have corrupted children? And so much more – Wilson turned out to have thought about them, and let the story slowly grow to take them all on.

Hometaker is a satisfying ending to the series – have no worries for a vague or cryptic conclusion to things here. There is a decisive final confrontation, a conclusive ending to things, even while Wilson lets his world exist beyond the boundaries of the page. For all of that, it sometimes becomes a bit rushed; for the first time, the “Hometaker” device feels less critical to the plot, more of a plot device to get our characters where they need to be. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – especially not when it delivers on a gripping three-pronged battle plan that takes up much of the book, brings great action, and constantly ramps up the tension – but what it means is that the stakes of this book are a little harder to grasp. Yes, this is the final book, and the final battle – but what, exactly, are they hoping to accomplish with this final raid? We’re never quite told, not clearly. More than that, while the final confrontation is deeply satisfying and nicely concludes the story, it feels like something our characters lucked into, not planned for; for the first time, Wilson’s plotting feels a bit rushed and vague, as though there are machinations and manipulations we weren’t present for. In other words, sometimes it feels as if the final confrontation happened not because the story led to it, but because Wilson needed it to happen, and that’s a bit frustrating.

None of that, however, really prevents the book from being gripping and exciting, as I’ve come to expect from this series. The action, as always, is riveting throughout, and told beautifully, and Wilson has invested us enough in these characters that the deaths throughout this book, the sacrifices, and the reveals hit us more than I would have ever expected from the first book, two years ago. More than that, there’s a genuinely satisfying ending, as Wilson leaves us time to see where the story is beginning to lead after this has all ended, letting us feel like there’s a world that will continue after this series ends. Is this final entry a little bit more rushed than the rest, a little more forced? Yes – but just a little. In general, it’s a satisfying, solid entry in a rich steampunk war series that I’m far more glad I read than I ever would have expected at the beginning of it all.

Amazon

Worldwaker, by Dean F. Wilson / **** ½

worldwaker_coverWorldwaker is the fifth – and penultimate, apparently – entry in Dean F. Wilson’s Great Iron War series. It’s the story of a dystopian future where earth has been invaded and colonized by a race of “demons” – but, more accurately, it’s the story of the rebellion that’s fighting back against that occupation. In short, it’s a war series, although one that mixes elements of steampunk, dystopia, magic, and science-fiction into its storytelling.

But it’s also a story that’s evolved over the course of its length, and in generally good ways. Wilson has always anchored his book in his characters, allowing their motivations, conflicts, and personalities to be as important to the story as the military action. Whether it’s the morally shady hero Jacob, the noble but weary General Rommond, the cold Taberah, or many of the others, Wilson brings them to life, and allows them to be flawed, complicated, and heroic in equal measure. But as the series has continued, he’s allowed that not only for his heroes, but for his villains as well – and the series has really soared as a result.

Starting in the previous entry, Landquaker, Wilson began exploring life among the demons. But Worldwaker takes that to a new level, as our heroes are forced to strike a temporary treaty with the demons to stop a group from ending the world in a twisted effort to bring about peace. That changes the tone of things quite a bit, and forces the characters to see that it’s never as simple as we like to think. More than that, though, Wilson does something else new here, splitting his heroes up drastically, and following them through three very different settings, each of which gives us a window into life under the Regime that we haven’t gotten before. There’s a scene in a Regime rally, for instance, that’s truly gripping, and helps us understand what life is like for those not in the Resistance.

Of course, that doesn’t mean you don’t get the usual great action that Wilson delivers. His centerpiece here is an air battle that features men leaping from planes, air-boarding other craft, saving pilots who have been shot down, and all kinds of jaw-dropping feats that work somehow, thanks to Wilson’s writing and character work. More than that, it never feels overwhelming or confusing; instead, it feels coherent and beautifully staged, so that you can understand all of the various movements and tactics unfolding, and know exactly where everyone is at all times.

There’s definitely a sense that we’re entering the endgame of the series by this point, and that’s before Wilson starts bringing home the danger of the situation with some shocking deaths along the way. The Resistance is taking bolder actions, striking back harder, and making braver stands. But more than that, exhaustion is taking a toll on our heroes. They’re starting to question the fight, question their lives, and start thinking about what comes after. And it’s to Wilson’s credit that these are questions we genuinely want to see answered. After five books with these characters, I want some happy endings. I want Rommond and Brooklyn to find peace and calm. I want Whistler to figure out his place in the world. I want Jacob and Taberah to figure out a way to make it work. And while not all of those will happen – indeed, some of those can’t, by the end of this book – it’s to his credit that I’m invested in it and want to see it happen.

So bring on book six, Mr. Wilson. I’m excited to see how this all comes together.

Amazon

Toru: Wayfarer Returns, by Stephanie R. Sorensen / **** ½

28605284Nominally, Toru: Wayfarer Returns is a steampunk book – at least, that’s sort of how it’s being marketed. And in many ways, that makes sense; it’s a book about 1800’s era Japan, in which a young man who has traveled America for several years returns to his homeland and attempts to warn his people about the pending arrival – and possible threat – of the American people. More than that, he attempts to rally a defense, forcing the famously rigid, traditional country to embrace new technology and inventions – trains, dirigibles, and more. In other words, there’s a lot of steampunk there, even if it’s a more mellow, grounded version of it.

But honestly, focusing on just the steampunk aspects of Toru sells it short, because more accurately, this is an alternate history book, one in which Japan heeds the warnings and threats posed by the outside world and slowly awakens to face those intruders. Indeed, rather than being pure wish fulfillment where Japan is suddenly awesome and formidable, Sorensen lets her plot unwind slowly, as the lords come around to these new ideas, and attempt to turn the nation’s tide through politics and persuasion.

It all ends up being more of a drama than an action book, and honestly, that only makes it all the stronger of a book. Sorensen’s portrait of Japan is a compelling one, and although there are the usual anachronisms here and there (most notably the headstrong, ahead-of-her time female character), Sorensen deals with them well (in the case of the aforementioned lead, she’s outspoken only when she knows it’s societally safe to do so, and knows how and when to act the part of the traditional figure – a far more interesting take than the brash young woman who doesn’t fit the time period at all), incorporating them into the history in a way that makes them feel appropriately used and less forced.

There are still some minor plotting issues with the book, mind you; for instance, the issue of Toru’s parentage seems unnecessarily complicated, especially with regard to his father, who is pretty obvious from the get go, and yet doesn’t step forward to claim his son. There seem to be reasons for this, and I was fine with it, until a long sequence in which a character is pondering all the reasons why it would be fine for that person to claim his son – and none of those are ever really answered. It ends up feeling like a plot thread that’s obscured for no immediately obvious reason, and distracts from the book. Less distracting but perhaps more unsatisfying is the romance plotline, which simmers for a bit before suddenly and abruptly resolving itself with little warning or explanation.

But even with those issues, there’s a lot to like about Toru: Wayfarer Returns. Rather than just a simple steampunk setting, Sorensen steeps her world in history, and finds a fascinating theme to play with: the conflict between tradition and the future, to say nothing of Japan’s complex relationship with the outside world. And she engages with that theme in a fun way, telling an engaging story about a political revolution that occurs through the will of people who see the writing on the wall. That choice gives the book more depth and complexity than you might expect, and turns it all into something far richer and more satisfying than just another simple thriller. Yes, it’s got its issues (and sometimes the success of our heroes strains credulity a bit), but I can’t deny that I enjoyed it all a lot, and will be eager to see the next book in the series.

Amazon