We complete the first round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Auraria by Tim Westover against Zombie Bake-Off by Stephen Graham Jones. The book I most want to continue reading after 25 pages will be the final entrant in the second round.
Auraria: QW Publishers trade paperback, July 2012, 390 pages. QW bills itself as a publisher of "quaint and weird fiction," but its only two books so far are Tim Westover's Auraria and an anthology edited by Tim Westover (albeit an anthology with some strong authors, such as Camille Alexa and David Boop). So until QW puts out some books with other names on them, we'll have to regard this as a self-publishing venture of Tim Westover. Westover's previous book was a collection of short stories originally published in Esperanto. (I kid you not. The back of Auraria boasts that the book was short-listed for Esperanto Book of the Year; I'm surprised enough Esperanto books are published in a given year to make a list.)
Auraria is a fantasy based on Appalachian folklore, set in the Nineteenth Century. Our protagonist James Holtzclaw arrives in Auraria, Georgia, a mining town that has seen better days, intent on buying out all the land in furtherance of his employer's secret plans. From the moment he arrives, Holtzclaw encounters strange sights, such as a young man fishing in fog where there is no water, for which Holtzclaw labors to find sensible explanations.
Zombie Bake-Off: Lazy Fascist Press trade paperback, February 2012, 256 pages, cover art by Matthew Revert. Lazy Fascist is an imprint of Eraserhead Press, arguably the leading publisher of bizarro fiction. Stephen Graham Jones has written a dozen books in a range of genres and styles, although he is probably best known for his horror fiction. Among other honors, he has been nominated for the Stoker Award, the Shirley Jackson Award, and the International Horror Guild Award. He is one of the most accomplished Native American authors working today.
Zombie Bake-Off is a tongue-in-cheek zombie story. It begins late at night when a group of stoned young men in a bakery truck run over an odd-smelling pedestrian. In a panic, they throw him in the back of the truck, but by the next morning the body is gone. Meanwhile, security guard Chapman and soccer mom Terry are engaged in a turf war——the Lubbock, Texas bake-off has been double-booked with a pro wrestling event. The back of the book suggests some of those wrestlers will soon be indulging in tainted donuts.
The Battle: Stephen Graham Jones is a top-flight author who brings a welcome perspective to the field, emphasizing blue-collar characters. It is nearly inconceivable he could be taken out of the Battle of the Books by a self-published author whose previous work appeared in Esperanto.
But sooner or later it was bound to happen that an independent book would win one of these battles, and Auraria has by far the best opening of any indie contestant since we started the Battle of the Books. The opening pages of Auraria feature a charming voice and wonderfully wry dialogue. The fantasy elements so far are understated, but it is most amusing watching Holtzclaw try to make sense of them, for instance in this scene where he meets a strange young woman in a quiet pond:
"May I trouble you for your name?" said Holtzclaw.Meanwhile, as much as I admire Stephen Graham Jones' writing, I'm not much connecting with the first sections of Zombie Bake-Off. Humor is always subjective, and "bizarro" humor particularly so. While I generally like the bizarro sub-genre, it tends to be hit-or-miss for me, and so far Zombie Bake-Off is a bit more on the miss side. Even though the book is overtly tongue-in-cheek, I found less to laugh at in the opening pages than I did from the more subtle humor of Auraria.
"Princess Trahlyta," she said.
"How lovely," said Holtzclaw. "Mine is James Holtzclaw, at your service. 'Princess' as a given name is popular right now. Your parents picked a fashionable one for you."
"Pleased to meet you, James. Princess isn't my name. It's my title."
"Princess, eh? Where is your kingdom?"
"This spring and the others like it," she said. "The valley. An hour upriver; the same downriver. And thousands of miles beneath my feet."
"You own all that?" said Holtzclaw.
"To be princess doesn't mean to own it," she said.
Holtzclaw's respect for her calmness and command of natural lore turned to contempt at her childish answers to his questions. She was playing a game with him, trying to draw him into her fun. It was a waste of time.
THE WINNER: Auraria by Tim Westover
Auraria advances into the second round, to take on Song of the Serpent by Hugh Matthews (aka Matthew Hughes).
To see the whole bracket, click here.