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Saturday, November 28, 2009

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi

Title: The Windup Girl
Author: Paolo Bacigalupi
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: September 15, 2009
Pages: 300

Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl is intelligent and frightening. Agricultural companies rule the world, distributing sterilized versions of crops long ruined with diseases like blister rust, cibiscosis, and scabis mold. The Earth of the future is one gone to waste; politics, climate, and resources like food and energy (i.e. oil) have deteriorated. In Thailand, the government has set up factions to control their most precious material: a genebank containing original crop DNA free from existing disease and genetic enhancement, the epitome of all that is natural and good to the Thai people.

With plagues ravaging crops and making people sick (and Agricultural companies barely staying on top of the latest strain), the Thai government is determined to police imports and keep their country thriving amidst a global crisis that threatens to metaphorically tear down the pumps that keep the capital from drowning in seawater. The Environment Ministry monitors the borders under the guidance of Captain Jaidee--one of five narrative viewpoints--the ‘Tiger of Bangkok’. He ruthlessly enforces the law, going so far as burning incoming material under even the faintest trace of suspicion. Jaidee’s earned himself a reputation that grates against the Trade Ministry’s ability to import and export items and profit from more lucrative, albeit shady, deals.

Anderson is a westerner who works for a Agricultural company in Des Moines. He was sent to Thailand under the guise of the SpringLife factory owner, manufacturing a renewable energy source called kink springs, to barter for influence and gain access to the genebank. Hock Seng is a worker who fell under Anderson’s jurisdiction when his predecessor, Yates, failed bring the company results. Hock Seng is (if I have this right) not a Thai native, he’s a refugee from China who blends in at the risk of being subjected to the ridicule and contempt his lower tier status as a non-native grants him. Although he works under Anderson, his dislike of the farang, or foreigner, is fueled by a personal desire to undermine the man’s authority and steal information to sell to suppliers eager for a step up in competing markets.

Lastly, there is Emiko, the genetically altered Windup Girl invented by the Japanese that stands against everything the Thai find wrong with the global crop production: artificial, sterile, and soulless. She was left abandoned by her former owner and lives as a prostitute, forced to barter favor with her new owner by performing to the perverse nature of her customers. Emiko is all too aware of the risk she poses should the authorities find out she’s been living inside Thai walls and succumbs to her owner as obediently as her programming demands of her.

As the titular character, Emiko really steals the show. In a novel that thrives on political and personal motivations fueled by greed and power, it’s a refreshing, albeit sobering, perspective to read Emiko’s struggle to simply be. She was designed poorly for the Thai climate with tiny pores and suffers frequently from overheating problems. Her jerky, twitchy movements instantly reveal her true nature and elicit the shameful epithet, “heechy keechy.” When her existence is abhorred and rejected by the Thai way of life, she’s come to understand the symbolic threat she poses in the brewing war between the Environmental and Trade Ministries. Her development throughout the narrative follows the political maneuvering going on around her, especially when she acts against her programming and unwittingly causes an uproar to tip the already agitated scales of political upheaval.

She’s so integral to the plot and symbolic of the dilemma facing everyone and everything in this novel: survival. It’s the thematic pulse of The Windup Girl and works on multiple levels, which, to the author’s credit, is only a small part of what made this book so fantastically satisfying. The characters are dynamic, written with a studied understanding of the disparate elements that influence every day life. The setting is amazing. Bacigalupi exemplifies a strong grasp on modern technology and politics as he extrapolates our world to the believed future of Emiko’s Thailand. It’s a frightening reality made all the more influential by the connections apparent to habits and the scientific endeavors of today. It’s as much about survival as it is about progression and where the two must inevitably meet. Whether that’s to our benefit or not is yet to be seen, but Bacigalupi left me floored.

I don’t think anything I write can or will do this book justice. At this point, I want to go back and reread the book to pick up on everything I missed. It’s not wise to wade through the weighted (not purple, just weighted) descriptions with impatience, or skim the exposition in any sense of the word. The cities and streets thrum with the vitality of Bacigalupi’s talent. The secrets of understanding the plot and thematic interests rest in the entirety of the pages--nothing can be skipped; there is no pause in the narrative where one protagonist sits and explains what’s going on, what’s been going on, or what happened to bring us here. It’s a true “show, don’t tell” story and any reading would do a disservice to the text and the reader themselves should The Windup Girl be gobbled up for plot, rather than for gratifying experience of reading a well-written SF book.

From what I understand, The Windup Girl, while being a debut novel, is the product of a couple of short stories written in the same world, “The Calorie Man” and “Yellow Card Man.” I was a little worried that, not having read either story, the book would be too influenced by the two, would not stand on its own without having read his previous work, but that wasn’t the case. If any one else has the same concerns, don’t worry. You’ll be fine.

I’ll definitely be watching out for Paolo Bacigalupi titles in the future!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ash by Malinda Lo

Title: Ash
Author: Malinda Lo
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: September 1, 2009
Pages: 272

We’re all familiar with the story of Cinderella: a girl, coming of age, breaks free of her unfortunate circumstances and upsets the balance of society to rise above her station and marry not just any Prince, but the Prince; they go on to live Happily Ever After. The fairy tale is part rescue mission, part freedom fight with some political commentary wedged between the two. It’s about choices and desires; dreams and surprises. There’s little initiative on Cinderella’s part--her fairy godmother does all the hard work and saves the day. All Cinderella ever has to do is what she’s told: wear the dress, go to the ball, come back before midnight.

Malinda Lo approaches the fairy tale from a different perspective: what if Cinderella had no desire to secretly compete with her stepsisters for the Prince’s heart? What if there was a different way to escape her circumstances? The solution comes in the form of Sidhean (pronounced SHEEN), a cursed fairy, and Kaisa, the King’s Huntress. Alone in the city after her father’s death, Aisling’s curiosity keeps bringing her back to the woods beyond her stepmother’s home where she meets both Sidhean and Kaisa. Sidhean is a strange fairy man who surprises Ash (Aisling’s nickname) by not kidnapping or killing her like the fairies in her fairy tale book. Devastated over her father’s death and miserable at the thought of having to pay back the debts her father left to his widow, Ash struggles with Sidhean to abandon her world altogether and live in the land of fairies. Instead of helping her cross the boundary between the worlds, he grants her wishes. As many as she desires, but with each comes a price. And so Ash uses her wishes to bring her closer to Kaisa, whom she doesn’t yet realize she’s falling in love with.

Having changed the fairy godmother of the fairy tale into a fairy godfather (and cursed, no less), Lo then turns to the fated ball. Except, in this case, Ash doesn’t fall in love with the Prince. Her eyes are solely for Kaisa. Instead of a glass slipper, it’s a fairy cloak that Kaisa clings to, lost in her confusion and despair over Ash’s mysterious disappearance.

Placing the fairy tale in the same medieval, fairy setting with Kings and Queens makes it inordinately difficult to follow the rules of aristocracy and allow Ash--with a notably different sexual inclination--to fall for, much less marry, a Princess. The Prince remains, moved to the periphery with the audience wondering: how then does she become free? This left me grasping at the idea that Cinderella’s happiness at the end isn’t the pageantry of royalty, but the romance she finds. It’s love that saved her. Keeping this in mind, Ash is a uniquely successful re-telling shaped around the idea that ultimately Cinderella’s savior isn’t a magical pumpkin or glass slippers, nor is it a fairy godmother. All of those things provide her the opportunity to prove her worth, without which she would never have been able to fall in love. But it’s love, in the end, that makes the Prince choose her as his bride, thus saving her from a wretched existence at the mercy of her cruel stepmother.

Ash is no different. In that respect, I really appreciated Lo’s ability to reach into the heart of the fairy tale. That Ash fell in love with a non-royal is as insignificant as her falling in love with another young woman, but the distinctions are what make Ash so beautiful against what always threatens to be the same old tale.

That being said, I think the writing is what saved this book from falling just short of marvelous for me. Ash reminded me stylistically of Robin McKinley and I think fans of her writing would enjoy this book a lot. It’s shorter, but very engaging and accessible. As I read, it was easy to imagine the book being read to me, as some writing lends itself quite effortlessly. It read very much like a fairy tale and not just because that’s what it was. My only problem is in Lo’s execution of the romantic relationship between Kaisa and Ash. As much as I wanted to believe in the innocence of Ash discovering her true feelings, her interest in the huntress came off as curious more in the romance involved in being on a horse, on the hunt, left alone in the woods to do as she pleases, than on Kaisa as a woman--as a person. In other words, I felt Ash falling in love with the freedoms Kaia had than with Kaisa herself. As the narrative progressed, Ash’s feelings narrowed and found in Kaisa a like partner, but I was usually disinterested in their interactions together. I won’t deny there was chemistry, but the romantic chemistry felt forced, added at the end as an afterthought--which I know it was not intended to be. What I missed was the courtship between the pages where Kaisa and Ash undoubtedly connected in a way that went further than initial curiosity. I wanted to see more moments that warranted the embarrassed and shy glances between the two of them that persisted past what could be explained away as involuntary reactions to physical attraction.

I’m still thinking it over and love how beautiful everything about this book was--Malinda Lo is an author to watch out for in the future. And maybe I’m being too critical of the romance, too demanding for a book that doesn’t promise to go past a first kiss or show us if Kaisa and Ash lived happily ever after. Maybe Ash is just about Aisling making that first discovery and deciding to pursue a new relationship rather than be solely about the romance. And I think it speaks to Lo’s ability as a writer, that after finishing I’m still focusing on the beauty of the relationship--isn’t that part of what Cinderella is all about?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Eyes Like Stars: Théâtre Illuminata, Act I

Title: Eyes Like Stars: Théâtre Illuminata, Act I
Author: Lisa Mantchev
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: July 7, 2009
Pages: 368

If you had the chance to leave the only home you’ve ever known, would you do it? That’s the dilemma Beatrice Shakespeare Smith, or Bertie as she’s known to the denizens of the Théâtre Illuminata, faces. Bertie doesn’t know who her parents are or why she was left at the theater’s doorstep and, as part of a ritual half comfort, half quest she’s constantly writing the script of her own life. To give herself a history, she imagines a bittersweet romance between a famous actress and an ordinary, lovestruck fellow, a magical caravan, and a mysterious Mistress of Revels. The particulars are always foggy, but in the story of How Bertie Came to the Theater, Bertie is always wistful, always searching for the right combination of lines and directions to point her toward the truth: who were her parents? Why did they abandon her? Where did she come from?

Bertie is far from lonely. She’s been living inside the magical Théâtre Illuminata, home to The Book, which holds the complete works of every stage play ever. It also holds the power to summon any stage character or cast imaginable for weekly performances of beloved plays that helps keep the theater thriving. Surrounded by four mischievous fairies and a colorful array of characters, Bertie’s made quite a home for herself. She’s also learned, like any teenager, the fine art of getting into trouble. This time, the theater manager’s finally fed up. Faced with being cast out, Bertie is given an ultimatum: if she can think of a way to make herself indispensable to the theater, she can stay.

Despite the not-so-subtle manipulations of Ariel (from The Tempest), Bertie isn’t eager to leave, even if it provides the opportunity she needs to find her parents. She’s determined to stay--as if lost and doing what every child is told to do when they don’t know where they are: stay put and eventually you’ll be found. With the help of her fairy friends, Nate (a dashing pirate from The Little Mermaid and my favorite character, aside from Peaseblossom), and the production managers, Bertie’s devised a plan that she’s sure will change the theater and stage manager’s minds.

Eyes Like Stars is whimsical mix of script and novel, juxtaposing imaginative backdrops and familiar characters against Bertie’s reality. The result is an explosion of coffee, pastries, glitter, beautiful costumes, and clashing personalities. Characters from different plays (albeit, Shakespeare’s are favored) meet and interact in unexpected, humorous ways. The stage is a personality itself, almost stealing the show with multiple and quick scene and prop changes reminiscent of a magical Tim Burton fantasy.

There is a lot going on in this book. With so much distraction outside of the main plot, it’s no wonder Bertie’s plan went tangentially into a dance with Ariel that led to The Book disappearing, changing the direction of the novel. What started out as a quest to help Bertie stay at the theater became a hunt for The Book, but don’t be discouraged. Mantchev manages to entwine the chaos into a reasonable assembly of working cogs all moving toward the same end: the clock is ticking and just when Bertie thinks her goals are insurmountable and hopeless, she remembers the Théâtre Illuminata has one advantage that works in her favor: magic.

If the disparate elements of the narrative struggle to make sense to you, be patient! Like all good authors, Mantchev proves she has command of her story, answering most of our questions and leaving the more burning ones for the sequel.

I have to admit, I’m not a huge fan of Ariel The Romantic Interest as much as Ariel The Manipulative And Scheming Sprite. The chemistry between him and Bertie seemed born of his machinations and desires to be set free (typical Ariel!) and I can’t help wanting to disbelieve his disposition at the end. My heart goes to Nate, whom I desperately hope isn’t related to Bertie in any familial way. The two of them were adorable together, even if Mantchev held back in what I can only hope is out of respectful consideration and not foreshadowing. I’m still suspicious of Ariel, but will have to wait until next year for any answers. This was an overall cute and easy read I’d recommend to anyone who wants something fun and light.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Fire by Kristin Cashore

Title: Fire
Author: Kristin Cashore
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Release Date: October 5, 2009
Pages: 408

Fire is, like the cover says, a companion book to Graceling (don't pay attention to this graphic, my book says quite clearly "companion"). Chronologically it’s a prequel, but in setting inhabits a mysterious world separated by mountains from Katsa’s and populated with Monsters instead of Gracelings. Monsters are no less captivating or powerful than Gracelings, but they’re considerably more deadly; Dellians fear Monsters as much as they inexplicably love them. Lucky for Fire--the protagonist--she’s the only human Monster left in the Dells. The rest are animals: brightly colored with poisonous malice and a thirst for blood, especially Monster blood. What attracts normal people to Monsters is their beauty. As Clara eloquently put it, “Everyone wants a bit of something beautiful.” (p. 204) The danger with that sentiment is not everyone responds by fawning or showing devotion and adoration. Some people are driven to do mad, horrible, violent things. It’s because of the degree of reaction (overwhelming unless a person has learned to control themselves, which can be done), Fire has learned to grudgingly defend herself by making use of the hypnotic, controlling power she has as a Monster. Exerting her will onto others while distasteful and utterly disagreeable to Fire’s inclinations, helps keep her safe, but it also reminds her of her father.

Cansrel was a lustful man who abused his Monster abilities and enslaved people to do terrible things for him. Worst of all, he enslaved the Dellian King, drove him mad enough to kill himself and ran the kingdom into ruins. As Fire is constantly reminding herself: she is not Cansrel. That doesn’t stop other people from sending harsh, critical stares in her direction or judging her objectively before they’ve ever met her. But Fire is nothing else if not brave. For as much as Fire’s Monsterhood ostracizes and objectifies her to other people, it saved her from her father, Cansrel. In his beautiful little girl, Cansrel found a bit of himself, a person of like abilities to share a bond with, someone whom he could never harm, but train--in secret--to hone her abilities and harness her will for selfish and bad deeds. Before his sudden death, Fire learned everything she needed to know about her power: how not to be like Cansrel.

And so Fire, the novel, opens onto an eerie scene with a man and his Graceling son, a wicked boy who uses his Grace for cruel exploitation and perverse motivations. Immiker, who is also known as Lek, is creepy. He’s so creepy, I was glad the book moved onto the first part and chapter, leaving him far behind in favor of Fire. Fire, who is not creepy. Fire, who is determined to find the poacher who shot her on accident and the archer who shot him and continues to kill throughout the Dells. But to do that, she has to contend with a king who can’t resist her, vicious raptors, her own misgivings, and a prince who doesn’t hide his distrust and dislike of Fire.

Those of you familiar with Graceling will appreciate Fire. Kristin Cashore writes amazingly strong, complicated female protagonists. In Fire, it’s not just the protagonist who’s strong, it’s every woman, even those on the fringes. Women are in the military, they’re used as guards, spies; they’re mothers, grandmothers, daughters, sisters; they’re powerful no matter what role they play. Women are everywhere and everywhere productive, indispensable. That the women on the fringes are even noteworthy speaks to their phenomenal contributions side-by-side their male counterparts; they’re equals and for that, I thank Cashore tremendously.

Fire’s an interesting character. She’s both a metaphor for the archetypal woman and the one that breaks the mold. Fire is desirous and desired; because of this she’s seen--and recognizes herself as--dangerous. As a result she’s become self-conscious and weary, quick to dread the presence of men. Male Monsters don’t illicit the same response in women as Fire does to men. It’s inexplicable to me why males are automatically put into the weak-minded category and constantly have to wrestle with reality when Fire’s around, but were she a man, women wouldn’t be fawning all over her. It’s a double standard I had a lot of trouble with (maybe someone can explain it for me?), but for all that, Fire was still interesting. In addition to being dangerous, she’s also powerful and is keenly aware of this. With her power (to attract others, to change the will of most people) comes those who want to use her as a tool, a possession, a thing to be stolen, an object. In this way, she’s reduced to a feminist nightmare. But, when in the course of the book, she is actually kidnapped, Fire does everything but sit helplessly at the mercy of her kidnappers. She’s resourceful, willful, determined, brave, and smart. She also has the capacity for love of every kind. In her whirlwind life, she even finds the time for romance.

Cashore is determined to, once again, show young girls everywhere that they can have everything they want out of life, it’s just a matter of balance. Fire’s choice not to have children is a difficult one that haunts her throughout the book. She also struggles with her Monster-ness even as she successfully completes the work she tasks for herself using her abilities. Through Fire we see that finding a moment of peace with who we are isn’t always, or ever, easy, but it is doable if we want to work for it.

For everything I admired and loved about Fire, it did have some drawbacks. I was confused why the revelation about Cansrel’s death was presented in such a way that led me to believe I, as a reader, was supposed to be more shocked. I wasn’t. For all the attention and guilt associated with it, there should have been more suspense. As it is now, the narrative doesn’t warrant the outcome. If I had more clues to pick out the truth on my own, and why the truth was so consequential, I’d be more involved in the emotion of that revelation. Unfortunately, I wasn’t. It was more of a shock when two women became pregnant, and by whom. Maybe I’m just dense.

The major problem I had with Graceling was the plot. With two major events taking place, and the first so easily trumped by the second (which seemed to me to be less consequential), I found myself lost and unable to be caught up in either one with any real conviction. Cashore fixed this in Fire. At first, it appears that the mysterious assassin that sends Fire to King City in the first place is completely forgotten about in favor of the jobs Fire takes while there to help out Nash. As we find out, that’s not the case, not entirely, and both threads were wrapped up rather nicely, if with a bit of an afterthought when Leck is thrown in quickly at the end. After letting the end simmer, I came to appreciate it a lot better and actually think Cashore did a great job tying everything together.

I kept getting distracted, though, with Fire’s Jedi-like ability to read other people’s minds and project her thoughts and feelings onto other people. Especially in the gala scene, her inner dialogue and manipulations ruined the suspense from an extremely suspenseful situation. Her ability in this case, seemed like an easy excuse for Cashore to use the dreaded “tell” instead of showing us what was happening. To be fair, this scene was the worst offender and Cashore did a good job otherwise. I just hope there isn’t anything like that in Bitterblue. While it’s unfair to criticize that because it’s who Fire is as a character and that technique is to help us understand her ability and what she’s experiencing, I still thought it detracted from the book. If my expectations were so high, it’s only because Cashore raised them considerably herself!

I love how Kristin Cashore’s characters are so complicated and realistic. Her multi-layered approach to their needs and desires is mirrored in their surroundings and the thematic issues raised in both books. Her writing and the issues she raises are so much more eloquent and sophisticated than I’ve ever expected. I can’t recommend Fire or Graceling enough. I winded up liking Fire better, but only because some of the kinks in Cashore’s writing were smoothed out. It doesn’t matter which you read first; both are worth reading; Graceling is about independence; Fire is about desire and control (and has a girl with wicked red hair, and bows and arrows. BOWS AND ARROWS). Your only dilemma is deciding which to read first!

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Star Wars 501st: An Imperial Commando Novel

Title: Star Wars 501st: An Imperial Commando Novel
Author: Karen Traviss
Reviewed Format: mass market paperback
Release Date: October 27, 2009
Pages: 474

I won’t even pretend I remember everything that happened in the last Republic Commando book. Big events (Dar has a baby, Fi was brain dead, Sev’s MIA), points of suspense (clones have accelerated aging)--those are easy to recall, but tiny details that set up larger, looming, and very far off in the future plot lines fall away pretty easily: the significance of Death Watch, Arla Fett, Gilamar, etc… The problem with these books is the amount of intricate information and the large cast crammed into 400 some odd pages that beg for sequels and long, satisfying arcs. These are books I definitely need a Dramatis Personae to help jog my memory.

501st did not have a Dramatis Personae.

In a lot of ways, these books remind me of Timothy Zahn’s on the scale of character and growth Traviss writes into her cordoned off area of the Expanded Universe. It makes her books fascinating, but that depth comes at the cost of my attention span between releases which have been teased out too far apart for my tastes. Then again, with more time to write, Traviss has always delivered books I can’t get enough of.

In 501st, there’s so much set-up and introduction of new characters and potential plot lines that it makes me even more upset most of them probably won’t be explored, if at all, by Karen Traviss or anyone. With only one more Imperial Commando book left, I can only guess what gets left behind (Death Watch?? Melusar??). The end of Order 66 was, predictably, with the order to execute all Jedi on command. Etain is dead; Niner and Darman are part of Vader’s new Imperial 501st legion of elite stormtroopers; Skirata’s running a rogue clone daycare; Uthan must tackle the tricky and problematic accelerated aging process; Jango Fett’s sister is under the watchful eye of the Skirata clan and may or may not be legitimately insane. Suffice to say: there’s a lot going on before we even get into this latest book.

To put it bluntly: all of this is still a problem in 501st. This does not detract from the book at all. Let me tell you why.

501st is ultimately a rescue mission. Skirata’s gone uber protective of his boys and can’t stand having Darman and Niner separated from their family, especially because Darman has yet to see Kad with the knowledge that he’s the baby’s father. Jaing’s figured out how to remotely get Dar and Niner’s attention and an extraction plan is set up. This fuels the steady backdrop of the story, it’s the heartbeat that keeps the plot in suspense because it’s Traviss writing and the chances of something going wrong or our--and the character’s--hope of getting out, getting out alive, getting out alive and making it home, getting out and making it home in one piece are slim; if bad stuff’s going to happen, it will happen. The only question is what; when is always at the most crucial, poignant moment.

The suspense of Darman and Niner’s rescue is sustained by the everyday fears and worries of the Skirata clan as everyone attempts to cope with the “end” of the war. Their transition to “peacetime” roles mirrors the Republic’s transition to the Empire: the same, yet different in ways not entirely satisfactory. Skirata has attracted a “colony of the damaged and dispossessed” (p. 346) and the psychology of the characters is a jumbled mess of loss, loneliness, guilt, fear, and uncertainty. Not surprising to me, the dynamics between each of the characters is where Traviss really gets to flex her talent. She’s not just a military writer, she brings an emotional and contrary perspective to each psyche. Traviss even debates the philosophical merits of Jedi vs. Mandalorians with the hypocrisy evident in Skirata’s practices and moral stands. There’s a lot of concessions in this one that I think may attract readers who take arms against the literary “anti-Jedi” stance the Mandalorian culture exudes. I hesitate to claim that with any sort of finality because any concessions made are tempered with the ever-influenced opinion of newcomers finding welcome on Mandalore. Ny muses my point succinctly: “Skirata had spectacular double-standards, and the extraordinary thing was that they convinced her […] But when she stood back, all she could see was how many qualities--and terrible flaws--Mandalorians had in common with Jedi.” (p. 372)

By way of explanation, it isn’t just Ny who begins to notice this but, grudgingly, Skirata himself. Djinn Altis and his ragtag band of hippie, free-loving Jedi make lots of strategic cameos, inserting themselves into the plot and their ideals into the hearts of the entire Skirata clan. With Etain’s death still so fresh, the new perspective is bittersweet, but welcoming all the same.

Really, 501st takes an engaging detour from the action of the Republic Commando trilogy. I found it interesting and necessary: here finally are the psychological exploration we’ve been missing for new characters and relationships flung together over a long, hard war. The actual reprieve of peacetime is reflected in the struggle of each character to deal with the blows dealt them by the Republic and Separatists both. Nothing is answered or resolved; so much is left open for future books. The big disappointment is dreading which threads will have the opportunity to jockey for attention in the next, and last, book: Death Watch, Melusar, Dar and Niner finally coming home, or Djinn Altis.

There’s so much to each of these books I can’t express just how bummed I am that we’re losing the richness of the series. But don’t use that as a reason not to read this one. Knowing there’s got to be plot to forfeit for the next book since it’s now the last does make events a little more bittersweet, but you’re not saying goodbye to everyone just yet. There’s still one more. If I say that enough times, it might make me less sad. Despite that, I can’t wait to see how the series finally wraps up.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Peter and Max: A Fables Novel

Title: Peter & Max: A Fables Novel
Author: Bill Willingham
Reviewed Format: hardcover
Pages: 400
Release Date: October 13, 2009

You don’t need to be a fan of Bill Willingham’s Fables comics to like this book--you don’t even have to know what they are to understand Peter & Max. This is a re-telling of the Pied Piper of Hamelin story from a different perspective, one of those “what really happened” kind of tales. For every other character or event that might confuse the reader, Willingham explains the course of the comics in a few words and lines that, if anything, spoil crucial points of suspense that have navigated and pushed Fables over the years. But don’t let that discourage you at all if you’re a new fan. What I like the most about the comics and this book, is Willingham’s grasp of consequence and reality. To validate these fairy tales with contemporary ideas, Willingham is always examining the life of our favorite heroes and heroines in the unwritten pages after their most famous moments. Away from the storybook and our imaginations is a far removed perspective that pulls gently in our direction--here is more, it says to us; the story continues; life goes on.

For the folks in fairy tales--Fables, they call themselves--reality is about as pragmatic and mundane for them as it is for us. Forced to flee their fairy tale homes and find refuge in an enchanted portion of New York City’s Upper West Side, the Fables remind us that we know of only a tiny period in their lives; in our world they must learn to coexist in very human ways, without magic or magical objects that would draw attention to themselves. Yanked out of context of course it’s easy to imagine all sorts of wonderful, magical settings that make romantic adventures out of very real, scary episodes. Despite still writing in “happily ever after” endings, Willingham’s come a long way to revolutionize what’s been handed down to us for so long and in the same form.

Peter & Max is about the Piper family (a band of traveling minstrels), two brothers (Peter and Max), and the innocent Peep family who gets caught in the middle of fraternal jealousy and revenge. Like all such things, a combination of skewed perspective and hurt feelings tips the scales of envy towards violence. What begins as an ominous and mysterious set of flashbacks and present-day events, the story gradually finds promise in its most haunting thread: who is the true Pied Piper? Peter or Max? Peter is a sweet boy, always managing to do what’s right and do it well; Max is his older, but less talented, brother who snaps at the slightest attempt to undermine his authority and right as the eldest Piper child. It’s almost impossible to imagine the sweet-tempered Peter luring unsuspecting children out of their beds and away from their homes, but too predictable to assume the blame lays somewhere outside, somewhere obvious.

Like always, Willingham goes a bit further, beginning and ending the fairy tale after the part we’re familiar with. The Pied Piper doesn’t just disappear mysteriously, taking all of Hamelin’s children with him. When the past and present storylines meet, so too do Peter and Max. The outcome is part of what makes the Fables comics so legendary: Willingham not only recreates fairy tales, he adds another dimension that turns into a brand new one. This revival serves the longevity of an already perpetual existence for fairy tales.

For all that he’s done and all that Peter & Max accomplishes, that’s not to say the book isn’t without its faults, if you want to look critically enough. I really enjoyed everything about it. His writing is very accessible and at times, reminiscent of the simultaneous epic grandeur of the comics and those sprawling opening illustrations with short explanatory notations. It’s also the type of writing I tried to imagine as oral; you can almost hear Willingham sitting by the fireside, reading the book aloud to you in wide range of hushed, reverential, and dramatic tones. I’ll bet you he even does the voices. Peter & Max and the Fables comics fall into the same category of “adult fairy tales” as China Miéville's King Rat (albeit less gory and graphic), and Gregory Maguire’s Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister and Mirror, Mirror. With Willingham’s version of events beginning after what we already know, it turns his fables into the late night version of the books read to children just before their bedtime. The real stories are filled with divorce, politics, and sex. Turn on your night lights and be ready for something dark and disturbing--what happens to Fables when they have to live side-by-side the rest of us in real life. As for Peter & Max? You’ll have to read that for yourself. Just remember: this is not a comic.

While Steve Leialoha has beautiful illustrations throughout the book--and a mini comic at the end--on the jacket and actual book cover (the first thing you should do if you pick this up, is to remove the jacket and look at the gorgeous cloth cover!), they only serve to tease fans who rely heavily on the colored illustrations that make comics what they are. If you find Willingham’s writing to be less charming and more awkward and grasping in places, try to imagine it as a scene in a comic book and it might help you visualize where he’s coming from. I didn’t read this for the writing and it’s not unpleasant for that, but it’s too easy to critique the book against flat, predictable, and leading descriptions or emotions that are usually better served visually. Read it for the story and you may wind up loving it as much as I did.

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