Thursday, October 24, 2013

Chum by Jeff Somers

In part three of our Jeff Somers Love Fest: his new novel, Chum.

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First, I'd like to take a moment to say that the book itself is a lovely little artifact. I don't often have occasion to talk about books-as-objects, frankly because I read a lot of beat up, read-to-death, third-hand paperbacks. But my copy of Chum was brand new, crisp and clean, designed all in black and white. It was more svelte than I expected, given the other books I've read by the author, with a minimal and elegant cover design. Even the typeset of the cover hints at the book inside - the tilted U a little broken, a little drunken, and leaning just slightly on the other letters. The image above doesn't really do it justice.

I knew going in that this book was not going to be spec fic, like the other Jeff Somers books I've read (Trickster and the first Avery Cates novel), but from page 1 Chum shines with his distinctive voice and crisp prose. The book is written achronologically, with each chapter told in first person from the point of view of a different character in a group of friends. Most chapters take place on a major holiday over the course of about a year, but while the chapters aren't labeled by character, it's always clear within a page or so (or often much less) whose head we're in. Many of the events repeat from different points of view, and because the whole novel follows the same group of 8 people, we get to know all the characters with amazing depth not only through how they see themselves and how they perceive each other, but the way they all respond to the same major life events.

The plot is revealed deftly and circuitously, leaving you questioning, suspecting, and re-analyzing the actions and motives of all the characters, even after the "main event" is fully revealed about 2/3 of the way through the book. Several of the reviewers on Goodreads found the timeline of the book confusing, and I'll admit that as soon as I finished the last page, I immediately started flipping back through chapters before deciding to reread the book in its entirety. But I didn't start over because I was confused - quite the contrary, I found myself reading again because I immediately remembered nuggets of foreshadowing and possibilities in the cracks of the chronology that only came into focus in retrospect. I found myself hungry to squeeze a little bit more out of this delightfully dark book. Despite the twisty structure, I personally never felt lost or confused, but in full disclosure, I'm also an English Lit kid who really enjoyed Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, so, there's that.

One piece of praise often leveled at Somers (by myself and others) is that he does a great job writing unlikeable characters. But while Chum is full of characters that certainly fit that description - self destructive, self-absorbed, adultolescent alcoholics - I realized that Somers isn't really writing unlikeable characters, he's just writing people. With one or two exceptions, the main characters aren't outlandishly deplorable - they aren't evil and they aren't villains (though a few of them do some pretty awful things). Even the most repugnant person in the group masquerades for most of the novel as not particularly worse than some skeezy guy who catcalls women. A good guy? No. But only the most banal and everyday "evil." Even the best among them are still human - there's no day-saving or dragon-slaying, just people who are sometimes weak and susceptible to outside pressure or their own preconceptions and fears, or who put themselves before others. In other words, this is a book about eight humans.

I realize that this is why I like Somers' writing so much, because it's not only elegant, precise, and subtle, but also uncommonly authentic. I mostly read in genres that feature lots of overpowered protagonists and (let's be honest) Mary Sues and Marty Stus, but even the protagonists in Somers' spec fic feel particularly human. Chances are, you'll even recognize one or more of the characters in Chum as someone from your own group of friends (or maybe some part of yourself). Reading through the novel, I felt myself balanced precariously between feelings of empathy and schadenfreude.

I haven't said much specifically about the plot, but it isn't for a lack of Interesting Things That Happen - more that it's difficult to do so without spoiling the beautiful non-linear narrative. Suffice it to say, Chum follows eight friends for a year as their group gradually collapses under the weight of its own collective dysfunction. A poignant sense of doomed inevitability hangs over the whole novel, and as it's revealed in bits and pieces, it only becomes more tense and more horrifying. As we go from holiday to holiday, from wedding to funeral to Tomorrow, the actions and reactions of the characters demands the rapt, breathless attention of a really awful train wreck.

Chum is filled with subtleties that are even more rewarding on a second read, and is definitely a book I'm going to be coming back to.

Stay tuned for: Jesus, I'm just going to read his entire bibliography straight through now, aren't I? Yes, yes I am.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Circle Of Enemies

Have you ever had something that you enjoyed so much that you couldn't bring yourself to be finished with it? Like the final episode of a favorite show, or the last piece of fancy chocolate in a box? Circle Of Enemies, the last book in Harry Connolly's Twenty Palaces series, has long been that precious, preserved, one-last-thing for me. It's been probably two years since I first devoured the (chronologically) first three books of the series, and it took me this long to let myself read the last one, because I just didn't want to let the series end.

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A little background: I actually discovered the Twenty Palaces series in probably the weirdest way I've ever discovered any book. That is, through this blog post, where the author announces and discusses the cancellation of the series. I admit, it seems like the last thing that would compel a person to pick up the book - hey, these books didn't sell well, the last one ends on a cliff hanger, and there won't be any more! Where do I sign up, right? But the author's voice in that article is compelling, the story sounded great, and the first chapter (free on his site) was amazing, so I got a copy of the first book, Child of Fire, on my kindle and started reading...

...and could not stop. I swear to god it was the single most compulsively readable book I've ever picked up. I started reading it one day in the afternoon and just one more chapter'd it all through the night and until the sun was up and the book was over and I was feeling a little dizzy. I read the second book, Game of Cages, with similar voracity, and then picked up his self-published prequel, Twenty Palaces, and gulped it down, too. But after I bought Circle of Enemies, I couldn't bring myself to pick it up. All three of the other books end on cliff hangers. Really, it's less that they end and more that they just stop (which incidentally, to me, is the only real weak point of the whole series - the lack of book-level resolution, especially in the first book). I knew ahead of time to expect a cliffhanger, and as much as I wanted the book, I didn't want the series to be over, and I really didn't want to be left wondering. Like many other 20P fans, in my heart of hearts I was holding out for him to announce he was going to self pub another one.

I finally changed my mind when I heard Harry Connolly had launched a Kickstarter campaign*, not for 20P, but for a new epic fantasy series called The Great Way. The promise of more great books somehow soothed the burn of having no-next-book, and to be honest got me hungry for his fantastic writing again. So I dusted off the old mobi file, fired up my kindle, and started reading...

...and couldn't stop. Even with the gap in between, I was swept back into the series immediately. In this book, for the first time we actually start to glimpse the inner workings of the Twenty Palaces Society. Ray Lilly, who is supposed to be the Society's cannon fodder, has not only survived everything they've put in front of him, but has had success after success at fighting back the forces of darkness where much higher ranking members have failed. For the first time, his boss Annalise is actually sharing information and starting to treat him as something a little more than a human shield... right around the same time Ray begins to question whether or not this is still what he wants after all.

As with the chronologically-first/last published book, Ray is pulled into a situation where friends from his past have become infected with predators - the insatiably hungry world-eating monsters from another dimension the 20P Society is sworn to kill. Their contamination virtually ensures their deaths, and Ray feels indirectly responsible for what's happened to them. The main action of the book consists of Ray trying to find a way to save them without letting the predators go free, which is no small task. Now, I guess it's a somewhat commonly held opinion that Ray Lilly isn't a sympathetic (or even likable) character - the author himself mused over this in the blog post I linked earlier. But I'll fight anyone who says so.

Really, the fact that Ray is a genuinely good guy with 100%, Grade-A, shit for luck is what makes these books work. The 20P society is full of ruthless killers who believe there's no room to be concerned about collateral damage: stopping the predators has to come first. But especially in Circle of Enemies, Ray is plagued with guilt over the lives he's had to take to keep the predators from getting a foothold in our world. Even where he fails, the fact that he tries so hard and wants so badly to do right is a big part of what makes the series so compelling. Ray is a criminal and a murderer, but by circumstance rather than intent. He does the best he can with the crap he's handed, and feels deep remorse for killing even when he has no other alternative. Unlike other male UF protagonists whose greatest trials are of their own making (I'm looking at you, Harry Dresden and Atticus O’Sullivan), Ray is a guy who's spent his whole life in the wrong place at the wrong time, but is always trying to set the shitstorms he walks into to rights, and atone for his own wrongs. And the books are a lot of fun to read because, damn, does he walk into some shitstorms. 

I'll also say that (perhaps because I had a couple years to steel myself for it) the ending was not as cliff-hangery as I'd feared - certainly not nearly so much so as the first book. It's clearly open ended, and almost feels like Ray's journey is really just beginning, but it's a satisfying close, at least, to what feels like the first act of a play that (tragically) likely won't be finished. Still, I would recommend these books to anyone who would sit still to listen. Not only does Harry Connolly create a compelling, dark world, but does a fantastic job of populating it with nightmarish new creatures rather than relying on your conventional demons and ghouls. And Ray Lilly is an unlikely hero I can really get behind.

*As of this writing, Harry Connolly's Kickstarter for The Great Way is entering its final stretch, with all the major stretch goals unlocked. If you're interested even a little in his work, a $12 pledge will get you the first 20 Palaces book as well as two other books in addition to the entire Great Way trilogy. Which, if you ask me, is a helluva deal. Personally? I can't wait!

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Little Inferno

Yesterday, a friend sent me a link to an indie game on Steam called Little Inferno, joking that it was perfect for our fire-loving mutual friend. I watched the trailer, and was immediately drawn in by the weirdness of it. As far as I could tell, the gameplay consisted entirely of lighting small objects on fire, but the game had an underlying grim humor and apocalyptic feel that I found really appealing.

 Website   Steam

The game itself didn't disappoint. You, the main character, live in a world plagued by an endless winter, and your only source of entertainment (and life sustaining warmth) is your Little Inferno Entertainment Fireplace.The gameplay is very, very simple - you spend virtually the whole game staring into said fireplace, tossing items inside and setting them ablaze in order to stay warm. You have to spend money to buy items to burn, and those items pop out money once they're fully combusted - more money than you spent on them, allowing you to continue buying more expensive items and unlocking new product catalogs. For each catalog, there are a set of challenges - combinations of 2-3 items you need to burn together, indicated by a short phrase that's sometimes literal (bike pirate) sometimes themed (terrible teeth), and sometimes metaphorical - though many of them sound more metaphorical than they are.

Some of the combos are more self evident than others, and they get appropriately more difficult as the game goes on, both because they're less obvious, and because you have more objects to combine. Now, all this is fairly basic (if really weirdly executed) puzzle game fodder. But what makes Little Inferno really come to life is that throughout the game you're receiving letters - from your new found friend Sugar Plumps, from the creator of the Little Inferno fireplace, and from the weather man. Each letter gives you a glimpse into the bleak outside world, with great little snippets throughout that feel fantastically ominous - more so because the most apocalyptic sounding turns of phrase are the ones delivered with the most cheer.

In fact, the whole game plays up this contrast between doom and gloom and upbeat cheer. The main game screen is silent except for the sound of fire and a faint, distant, cold wind, but the catalog pages (where you spend a near equal amount of time) have an upbeat, 50's TV ad style jingle. Everyone is all smiles, despite your obviously grim situation. And the toys. The toys are brilliantly designed, with a grim sense of humor (a rabid raccoon plushie, cans of soda that are "good as long as you're drinking them") that makes you laugh right up until it becomes sort of horrifying (a school bus - that you set on fire and everyone inside starts screaming) or tragic (a note from your friend, or a teddy bear). Even when you burn things in combination, they only rarely interact, but almost all of the items have their own unique reaction to fire (a cob of corn pops into kernels and then popcorn, the rabid raccoon starts foaming at the mouth) that's again sometimes really funny and highly pyro-pleasing, but occasionally really tragic.

Little Inferno is mostly a sandbox (fire box?) puzzle game with a story that gradually reveals itself, getting more and more haunting all the while. Like most indie games, it's pretty short - I clocked in a full play through in a little more than six hours, which included a break for dinner and a little wandering around, since there's no pause button (or really any kind of game interface at all) - but it's incredibly beautiful, with great visual and sound design, amazing writing, and a smooth, intuitive interface and reward system that manages to make the game feel more challenging as it progresses without really altering the gameplay. More than anything, the story is powerful and thought provoking, and all the more so because it's spare and deftly written. If you like playing with fire, puzzle games, post-apocalyptic stories, or are just looking for a simple something that will really make you think, Little Inferno is definitely worth a try.

If you're on the fence about it, I found that the game trailer I above is representative of the atmosphere and aesthetic of the game, but not really the gameplay. Since I'm not really the type to buy anything on a whim, I actually checked out this gameplay video from Yogscast before I bought it. The video is about 20 minutes long, but very representative of the game as a whole, and should give you a feel for whether or not you'll like the game pretty quickly.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

The Electric Church

I picked up a copy of The Electric Church by Jeff Somers because I read and loved one of his more recent novels, Trickster. Now, this is only the second book of his I've read, but I'm about this close to throwing in the towel, changing my handle to jeffsomers4lyfe and just straight up turning this blog into some kind of Jeff Somers fan club.

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The Electric Church is nearish future science fiction, set mostly in the remains of a New York City that has seen better days.The world is populated with three kinds of people: a few ultrawealthy citizens, cops, and criminals - aka, the hungry poor. And then there are the monks: cyborg religious fanatics comprised of a human brain inside a mechanical body. The real crux of the novel is that the monks' religion, The Electric Church, is one that strongly encourages conversion.

The world building in The Electric Church is some of the best I've read. It's lean and spare but powerful. Even with almost no backstory at all, we're effortlessly brought up to speed on more than two decades of radical political, social, cultural, and technological change. Everything we know about the world we understand through the main character, Avery Cates', perception, and Somers masterfully uses the reader's own preconceptions to hammer home the grim reality of his fictional world. It's his deft use of small, well placed details that sketches a much larger picture and really brings the world to life.

Another thing that works very, very well in this book is that the monks are consistently creepy. That is, they're creepy throughout, but never in the same way twice. As what we know about the monks changes, so too does their presence in the story. Just about every time one shows up on the page, it's chilling; each time, the stakes change and the tensions rises, and I start squirming in my seat and holding my breath. This was one of those books that I had trouble keeping to myself. I read it over a week long trip back home to visit family, and would ramble on about the book and how great it is to anyone would listen. Practically the second I finished it, I ran into the next room and put the book in the hands of the nearest willing person and said, "Read this. Immediately." I can blame this unbridled enthusiasm partly on the concept - it's been a while since I've read a really good sci fi book, and once I started getting into it, it fell right into my very favorite nightmarish future robots territory. But man did Somers do it well.

I'll say it was an interesting exercise, reading Trickster and The Electric Church not quite back to back. While the protagonists are superficially quite different, at their core they are very similar Noir Protagonists - good guys in bad situations, doing bad things for the right reasons, often in the general direction of their own destruction. And, without giving away any details (or having read the second book in either series), both books end in similar places - with the stakes raised and the playing field dramatically altered. As with Trickster, I'm incredibly anxious to see where Somers goes from here - and thankfully this time I won't have to wait too long for the next book. And I think his latest novel, Chum, just got bumped up from make sad eyes at the librarian to time for a trip to the book store. Seriously, guys. 4lyfe.