Dunkirk / **** ½

dunkirk-posterFor the second time in a row, I find myself reviewing a movie that undoubtedly has flaws on a character level, and yet is a movie that I find myself recommending solely on the technical merits of the filmmaking. Last time, it was Edgar Wright’s Baby Driver, where the film leaned on archetypes in favor of stylish, musical style and editing. But now comes Christopher Nolan’s visceral, intense Dunkirk, which focuses on the experience of those living through the Dunkirk evacuation in frightening, relentless detail, eschewing all but the barest character beats. And while a lack of almost any character depth would be an issue in almost every other film, Dunkirk makes it work, simply by virtue of focusing on the experience of the war as a whole, and making that the story of the film.

Unfolding in an unconventional three-part structure (more on that in a moment), Dunkirk follows the evacuation on three fronts: land (represented by the soldiers waiting to get home), sea (following the English citizens sailing their private crafts to the beach), and air (I. This case, a pair of RAF pilots running interference against the bombers constantly straying the beach and the boats). There’s little dialogue to the film; our main soldiers barely speak, our pilots are largely restricted to mission talk, and the only characters we somewhat get to know are our three primary civilians, a father and son accompanied by a close family friend. Instead, Nolan throws us into the action early and fast, letting the characters be defined by their action – and just as importantly, their reactions, as they cope with the danger around them. For the beach-stranded soldiers, that’s relentless German strafing of guns and bombs; for the boatsmen, it’s the constant and worrying presence of those same bombers, and the worry of the stranded men they find along the way; and for the pilots, it’s the worry that they may look behind them to find themselves in the gunsights of an enemy fighter.

As he did in Inception, Nolan plays the three threads against each other, letting the tension build in each simultaneously and cutting among them to keep the dread and unease building without pause. Instead of keeping that to the climax, though, Nolan pretty much juggles tension and dread through the entire film, with only one notable pause along the way that I can think of. Meanwhile, bombs are dropping, men are dying, ships are sinking, and there’s hardly a moment to catch your breath. The end effect is equal parts nerve-wracking, exhausting, and incredibly effective – rarely has a film managed to make audiences feel the dread of war so constantly without giving them an easy out.

That goes double if you’re lucky enough to see the film in 70mm as Nolan intended. Often using every bit of the massive frame, Nolan immerses you into this world, particularly in the aerial combat sequences that emphasize the space and the distance at all times, or an early overhead shot of the pier, beach, and water in an incredible tableau that drives home the scope and horrible beauty of all of this. Even more effective, though, is the deafening and relentless sound of the IMAX system, whose overwhelming and brutal roar reminds you that war isn’t exactly a quiet affair.

So, yes, on every technical and filmmaking level, Dunkirk is a knockout. But in other ways, it has some deep, critical flaws that keep it from being the masterpiece it could have been. The biggest is the lack of character work; while it’s understandable that the film focuses on the experience of war and the nature of these battles, there’s a sense that we care about these people because they’re human, not because we know them. And while there’s something interesting about that – that it doesn’t matter why you’re in the war, you deserve to be saved – it makes the film drier and colder than it could have been otherwise.

But the bigger issue to me is that three-part structure, which borrows another conceit from Inception – namely, that each part takes place over a different period of time, and only gradually does the film reveal the points at which they connect. It’s a showy gimmick, but one that never benefits the film; indeed, all we tend to think when we see those connections is about the film, not about the story. In other words, they end up taking you out of the film more than immersing you in it. It doesn’t help either that the film doesn’t make this time dilation particularly clear; even though each part is labeled “one week,” “one day,” or “one hour,” there’s no explanation of what that means, and I heard several people still not understanding the connection after the film ended. (To be fair, I don’t know that I would have gotten it worth having known about the idea before seeing it.) The result feels more like Nolan showing off than it does something for the benefit of the film, and the confusion and disorientation it brings detracts from the experience.

And yet, for all of those flaws – and they’re not insignificant ones – I still find myself recommending Dunkirk as a theatrical experience, and doubly so for 70mm. In some ways, it reminded me of my feelings about the film Avatar, a deeply flawed and simplistic film that I found myself realizing the flaws of throughout, and yet found myself incredibly swept up in as a theatrical experience. I don’t know that Dunkirk will ever play as well on a small screen as it does on the 70mm IMAX, or even just a good theater. But I can say that, even while I recognized its issues , I can’t deny the exhilaration, tension, and cumulative impact of the film as a experience, nor could I ever say that it’s not powerful, incredible viewing, taken all in all.

IMDb

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

Documentary Day

tickledBy now, you’re probably aware of some of the story behind Tickled, the fascinating, bizarre documentary from David Farrier and Dylan Reeve. How Farrier, a journalist with a penchant for offbeat stories, got tipped off to a series of videos of an underground “competitive tickling” competition. How Farrier started looking for interviews, only to get far more blowback and pressure than would seem logical for the situation. How Farrier and Dylan Reeve began investigating the situation, only to realize that there’s a much bigger – and stranger – story behind these videos. But even knowing some of that won’t prepare you for how gripping Tickled really is as a piece of investigative journalism, as Farrier and Reeve move step by step through this insane story that starts with what are clearly fetish videos, but end up in a world where money can let you get away with anything. Tickled struggles a bit along the way; without giving too much away (although there’s little here that’s truly out of nowhere, it’s still best to watch things slowly unfold), this ultimately becomes an effort to find someone who has no interest in being found, which leaves the documentary with a hole to be filled. (The long section where the film tries to present the tickling fetish as something far weirder than it is is a prime example of that, and easily the film’s weakest point.) That leads to a bit of a fizzling end to the documentary, which is why I’m so glad that HBO has released a short follow up, The Tickle King, which follows what’s happened since the film’s release, including confrontations at film festivals, legal threats, and more. It’s a far more satisfying conclusion to the film, even if it leaves out the most recent – and most final – update to the story (which happened in March). But watching them back to back makes for a riveting, bizarre experience, and a wonderful piece of storytelling that immerses you bit by bit into a strange world of fake identities, blackmail, bluster, and more. Even though there are some issues, and the better film would cut out some of Tickled and replace it with the end of The Tickle King, the pairing makes for a riveting night’s viewing that leaves you pondering the strangeness of human nature. Rating: ****

large_2iu7m8zs5fha4ct3c55ah38bc5sWhat I expected from Nick Broomfield’s Tales from the Grim Sleeper was another piece of investigative journalism. This was the story of a serial killer who preyed on South Central, a largely African-American community in Los Angeles, for nearly 25 years. And as such, what I expected was that the film would open with the early murders, then follow the case as it unfolded up until the arrest. Instead, Tales of the Grim Sleeper opens with the arrest of Lonnie Franklin, a largely beloved local man, and then investigates the obvious question: how did this take 25 years? And what does a revelation like this – that a local institution could be capable of possibly more than a hundred murdered women – do to the neighborhood around him? Director Nick Broomfield mainly stays out of the way for much of Tales‘ running time, instead letting the inhabitants of South Central – Lonnie’s friends, the activists, but also the prostitutes, the crackheads, the criminals – tell their stories largely uninterrupted. What emerges is a film that accurately reflects its title: this is tales from the world of the Grim Sleeper, a world where the murder of prostitutes were dismissed with the acronym NHI: No Humans Involved. It’s a world where black women didn’t feel safe going to the police to ask for help, and a world where the Los Angeles police didn’t feel the need to alert the community to the threat living among it, nor to investigate the evidence given by the lone survivor of the attacks…not until 20 more years (and countless more victims) had passed. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, heartbreaking film, one that exhibits endless empathy for its interviewees. There is no judgment for their bad choices, be they crack or prostitution or both; instead, the film constantly reminds us that no matter what people have done, they don’t deserve to have been killed in such a horrific way. More than that, it’s a film that makes it impossible to ignore the racial double standard at work with the Los Angeles police, and forces us to grapple with the ways in which that double standard cost the lives of so many women. And most hauntingly, it shows us what it must be like to have to come to terms with the fact that we may never truly know the people around us, and what it would be like to deal with the revelation that someone you knew and cared for could be so violent. Tales of the Grim Sleeper is a haunting, powerful piece of filmmaking, one that’s far more about the world that allowed this man to prey on women and the damage he left behind than it is the man himself – and is all the more powerful for that choice. Rating: *****

weiner-posterIf you’re at all interested in the political process, or the role of the media in that process, or in the line between public and private lives, I can’t recommend Josh Kriegman and Elyse Steinberg’s fascinating, uncomfortable documentary Weiner, which follows infamous former New York congressman Anthony Weiner as he makes an ill-fated attempt to run for mayor of New York City. Knowing how Weiner turns out – that a new sex scandal will break midway through the election, dooming his chances – doesn’t take away in the least from the fascination of Weiner, which attempts to take a “fly on the wall” approach to Weiner’s campaign and marriage; instead, it makes the campaign all the more excruciating, as we wait for this bomb to explode, destroying all of this work. Weiner does a phenomenal job of staying neutral in its reporting, and the result is fascinating, showing Weiner both as a savvy, intelligent politician and a capricious hothead who’s unable to think sometimes before he acts. In other words, we get both the sense of how great of a leader Weiner could have been, but also why he’s completely unelectable. The film never judges Weiner for his actions, allowing him to explain how little they have to do with his public persona or his platforms, while never flinching from the face of Weiner’s long-suffering wife Huma Abedin, whose strained, placid face reflects the pain she’s in all too often. Whether Weiner should be judged for the actions of his private life, whether the media’s focus on those issues prevented the real problems from being addressed, whether Weiner deserved to be constantly raked over the coals for his actions – the film raises all of these questions, but leaves them to the viewer to decide for themselves. Instead, it shows Weiner as a human being, letting us see both the energetic, avid politician and the conflicted, wounded private individual – and even the blurring of the lines between those two that so often hurts his marriage. Weiner is fascinating as a snapshot of a political landscape where private and public lines blur, as a snapshot of the modern political machine and how it reacts to scandals, and as a humanizing portrait of a flawed human being. All in all, a fantastic watch. Rating: **** ½

9e436d15140d704796d42283497ed5275ff2edf7John Huston’s Let There Be Light first came onto my radar after the release of Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master, when he cited it as a major influence on that film. It wasn’t all that familiar to me, and once I started looking into it, I understood why. A surprisingly controversial documentary, Let There Be Light was Huston’s effort to capture the realities of PTSD at a time when that phenomena was little understood or even acknowledged. By modern standards, Let There Be Light is a little slow-paced; more than that, it definitely feels of a piece with a lot of the World War II propaganda documentaries that we’ve seen over time, only with a different focus. And yet, none of that detracts from the power of this footage, which simply sits and observes these men as they attempt to come to terms with their experiences. Some have developed twitches or stutters; some have psychologically-induced amnesia; one has even developed psychosomatic paralysis. And over the course of the brief running time, Huston walks us through some of the therapies being implemented, from hypnosis to talk therapy sessions. It’s a calm, non-judgmental film, one that simply depicts these men’s psychic wounds and their efforts to heal. And yet, the government repressed the film for years, worried that it would lead to decreases in morale or a reluctance to enlist. But what’s evident from watching this film is that Let There Be Light is an important piece of work, a way of showing people that war doesn’t just destroy people physically; it takes a toll on the mind, and those wounds are no less deadly. It’s a remarkable, and even an important, piece of film that has earned its place in the pantheon of military documentaries, even if it feels a little slow and overstated by modern standards. Rating: ****

IMDB: Tickled | The Tickle King | Tales of the Grim Sleeper | Weiner | Let There Be Light

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

The Killbug Eulogies, by Will Madden / ****

34596837There’s something great about a book that embraces a constricting, careful conceit and finds a way to make it work, telling a story that couldn’t be told any other way. (For a great example of this, see Joe Hill’s superb short story “Twittering from the Circus of the Dead”.) What’s even better is when the conceit is instantly appealing, and Will Madden’s The Killbug Eulogies manages to do both. The idea here is simple: in a war initially reminiscent of that in Starship Troopers, soldiers are asked to deliver eulogies for the fallen, and the book consists solely of those eulogies, with no outside context. That’s a great idea from the get-go, but Madden really runs with it, creating, in effect, a series of short stories that collectively make up a larger arc, story, and novel.

Even better, though, the disconnected nature of the novel allows Madden to take on a wide variety of modes, tones, and ideas, ranging from hilarious to darkly satirical, from reverent to melancholy, from profane to sacred, and sometimes all of them at once. Within pages of the first eulogy beginning, we’re introduced to a soldier½ named Oogo (whose name was supposed to be Hugo, but the letter H was under strict rationing for the war) whose addiction for video game achievements leads to his death as he strives to cap the leaderboard for harvesting the left hand of the bugs. The result is gloriously silly and funny, making digs at so many social trends while still building its world, but it doesn’t prepare you for the next one, or the one after that, or the one after that, each of which finds their own voice, their own themes, and their own sensibility.

Sometimes, that can be a problem. Madden occasionally lets his eulogies turn into exposition, and it feels like he loses track of the thread, particularly in a late eulogy which gets into a long story thread about a captured bug who serves as a poet of sorts. It’s a great story, but gets away from the book’s conceit, and feels like it’s information he wanted to convey but couldn’t quite do organically. Similarly, those disconnected stories can lead to confusion – it’s not clear for some time that each of these eulogies is actually done by the same soldier, even when the tone and verbiage changes drastically in some of them.

And yet, those are both forgivable flaws, given how engaging, how funny, how rich these stories all are. Taken as a whole, Madden’s creating a complicated world, one that only slowly reveals its nuances and unreliability as it goes along. What seems like a cut and dry military conflict reveals itself to be something messier and more savage; the bugs rapidly become more than just cannon fodder; and our heroes…well, there may be a reason there’s so much depravity in these stories. And all of that doesn’t even get into the final chapter of the book, where Madden changes our perception of the whole book with some great – but completely fair – revelations that pull together all sorts of loose threads into a coherent whole, all without ever dodging the dark and silly humor that the book does so well.

The Killbug Eulogies isn’t just great science-fiction, though it’s undeniably that; Madden may seem like he’s just making jokes at first, but by the time you reach the end, you’ll realize just how sprawling, how complex his world building has been, even if it’s only carefully revealed. No, it’s also fantastic – and genuinely funny – satire with a dark bent, a thoughtful take on war, and a great piece of writing, one where form and function are intertwined in a way that leads you to realize that this book couldn’t have been done in any other way – at least, not without being this good, this fun, and this rich.

Amazon

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders / *****

97808129953431Not all five-star reviews are equal. It’s just a fact of life that you deal with as a reviewer – although grades and ratings are helpful, they’re not the be-all and end-all. No, the best you can do is choose a rating, and then hope to explain what the book/movie really deserves. And that’s doubly so in the case of George Saunders’ first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo. Because I’ve given five-star rankings on this site, more than a few times, but I’d be hard pressed to think of a book I’ve read in recent years that moved me, floored me, stunned me, and simply blew me away like Lincoln in the Bardo. It’s not just the best book of the last several years; it may be one of the best books I’ve ever read, period, full stop.

It’s going to be hard to convey the experience of Lincoln in the Bardo in a simple review – at least, in a way that doesn’t either reduce it to its barest outline, or explain it in a way that doesn’t make it sound pretentious and insufferably complicated. Taken at its simplest, Lincoln in the Bardo is the story of Abraham Lincoln’s time of grief after the death of his young son Willie, near the onset of the Civil War; taken as a novel, it’s a tale told through 100+ narrators, from distorted ghosts to primary sources (letters from the Civil War) to academic texts both real and fictional, all of which work together to tell a story about grief, war, public responsibility, and leadership. The former sounds simple and possibly saccharine; the latter sounds daunting and exhausting.

The truth, as you might imagine, comes somewhere in the middle. It undeniably takes a couple of chapters to get into Saunders’ rhythms, watching as he weaves in and out of his historical texts (both real and imagined), and slowly establishes his various narrators. And yes, as the book builds towards various “big” moments, the result can be overwhelming sometimes, creating a cacophonous effect that’s hard to escape. And yes, more importantly, this is a book about grief in its most primal form, as a man grieves for his son, who died before he ever truly lived.

And yet, none of that comes close to truly capturing the experience of Saunders’ book, which clearly proves the maxim that “the whole is more than the sum of its parts.” Saunders’ miscellaneous excerpts from historical documents and academic texts, for instance, do more than simply setting the stage of the novel; they allow us to immerse ourselves into the difficult political situation of Abraham Lincoln, a president dealing with an unthinkable conflict that was far from popular, as well as the bloody guilt that came with each new battle report. In Saunders’ hands, we don’t just read about the war; we find ourselves plunged into that time period, seeing both the ardent supporters and the fervent opponents of the war, to say nothing of the wide range of opinions on Lincoln, whose beatified reputation is stripped away with a reminder of how he was received by his contemporaries.

But it’s Saunders’ bardo – the transitional state between life and death – in which Lincoln in the Bardo truly soars. Populating his graveyard with a slew of figures unable to leave their lives behind, Saunders fills his pages with Dante-like invention, letting figures be altered by their lives in poetic fashion. (One man, who began to see the beauty of the world as he died, is now entirely composed of eyes looking in every direction; another, who died awaiting his first night with his wife, finds his spectral form to be in a constantly aroused state, to an absurd degree.) Each provides their own unique voice, their own concerns, and Saunders widely allows them to be from all classes, all genders and sexualities, all races, turning this from the story of one man’s grief and into a universal exploration of regret, loss, and life. Whether it’s hearing the stories of regretful suicides, anger at children who abandoned them, concern for their businesses that they built – whatever their loss, Saunders brings it to life, turning the book into something more universal than one man’s story.

And yet, this is Lincoln’s story – and by extension, a fascinatingly American story. Here is a man who is mourning the loss of his son, even as the war he’s overseeing sent so many other people’s childrens to their own deaths – a fact that Lincoln is increasingly unable to forget, and which haunts him. At the same time, this is a father, grieving for his son, and there is something painful and heartrending in how Saunders approaches this, dealing with it in degrees, with both father and son unable to move on from this loss.

All of this makes Lincoln in the Bardo sound daunting, and that’s a shame – not only is it surprisingly accessible, it’s also surprisingly funny, with Saunders’ dry wit and ability to inject silliness and anarchy into his stories often in clear view. And in a lesser book, all of that – the humor, the grief, the Civil War allegories, the personal stories, the slew of narrators, the historical documents, the guilt, the supernatural elements, the poetic justice – might overwhelm the book, or turn it into chaos. But in Saunders’ able hands, all of it works together, creating something that reads and feels like nothing else you’ve ever read. It’s funny and it’s heartbreaking; it’s profound and it’s childish; it’s complex and it’s simplistic; it’s universal and it’s incredibly specific. But more than that, it’s also truly, astonishingly beautiful – a work of art that explores grief, loss, and guilt as parts of the human experience. It grapples with big questions about what it all means, and it tries to find answers, and it does so while telling an incredible story and bringing to life a world unlike anything else in fiction.

It is, in short, a masterpiece of the highest order, and one of the finest books I’ve ever read. And I can’t wait to read it all again.

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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.

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