Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Five, Second Round :: Harmony by Keith Brooke vs. The Croning by Laird Barron

The second round of Bracket Five of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books pits Harmony by Keith Brooke against The Croning by Laird Barron. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Harmony: Solaris paperback, June 2012, 413 pages, cover art by Adam Tredowski. Harmony (published in the UK under the title alt.human) got here by defeating Wildcatter by Dave Duncan in the first round.

Harmony takes place long after the occupation of Earth by multiple varieties of aliens. Humans live in "Ipps," Indigenous Peoples' Preserves. In the first 25 pages, our teenaged hero Dodge saved a young woman who, inexplicably, lacked any "pids," the personal identifiers the aliens have placed in all humans' bloodstreams. In the second 25 pages, he learns that a human community in another region has been entirely wiped out for unknown reasons. Sol, the leader of Dodge's Ipp, sends him to a nearby Ipp in hopes of joining forces to prepare for the possibility of another such attack. While there, Dodge spots the woman he previously rescued.

The Croning: Night Shade hardcover, May 2012, 245 pages, cover art by Cody Tilson. The Croning reached the second round with a win over Fated by Alyson Noël.

The Croning began with a dark reimagining of the Rumpelstiltskin story, then took us to 1958, where an American man named Don frantically searches Mexico City for Michelle, his lost wife. In the second 25 pages, Don's search ends badly but not quite fatally. Don does not understand his strange occult experiences in Mexico City, and it seems Michelle knows something she is not telling him. We then get a brief glimpse of federal agents investigating a shooting in 1980, before flashing ahead to the present day, as octogenarian Don takes Michelle for a romantic getaway to celebrate their sixtieth anniversary.

The Battle: I hope the Battle of the Books is successfully conveying to all of you how many excellent writers we have today doing interesting work in the science fiction, fantasy, and horror genre. For once again, here is a battle which forces me to choose between two very well-written and engaging novels. Both novels have done a nice job of pulling me in by placing their characters in grave danger from the outset.

As I mentioned in his previous battle, Keith Brooke has a marvelous knack for conveying strangeness. The bizarre scenery of Harmony's occupied Earth makes for a fascinating setting. Dodge takes it for granted, for instance, that the aliens use scent to manipulate humans, and that humans have added alien clicks to their language to express emotions. Every page introduces an interesting nuance to Dodge's strange life in the future. The first pages of The Croning depicted a similarly strange world of the past, or at least the past of an odd and frightening fairy tale. The next chapters bring us into the Twentieth and Twenty-first Centuries, but with effective hints of something unfathomable lurking in the shadows.

I'm enjoying both these books and would be happy to continue with either. Forced to make a choice, it comes down to the characters. I liked the brooding "Spy" of the first chapter of The Croning, but I believe we're done with him. Now that we've switched to the present, I am not so attached to Don and Michelle. Don strikes me as a bit of a twit, and pretty much all I know so far about Michelle is that she has kept an important secret from her husband for over fifty years, which doesn't make her too sympathetic.

Meanwhile, in the opening of Harmony, Dodge has emerged as a very interesting and likable character. He inhabits an almost unimaginably strange world, but Brooke smartly also gives him mundane experiences to which his readers can relate. In a recent battle (ironically, the first-round battle that The Croning won) I made sport of a book's extremely lengthy description of teenagers kissing and groping. Here, in contrast, is a description of a teenage kiss that to me works perfectly:
Her lips pressed against mine, firm and cool, over in an instant. I flinched, surprised, and clicked, "!¡fear ǀ excitement¡!"

I reached for her but she had turned, stepped away, and almost before I could react she was pausing at the entrance to the villa, dipping her head to me in parting, and then she was gone.

I could taste her on my lips still. I could close my eyes and feel the pressure of her mouth on mine.
I care about what happens to Dodge, and I want to see more of Brooke's future world.

THE WINNER: Harmony by Keith Brooke

Harmony advances to the semifinals, where it will face Railsea by China Miéville.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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