Thursday, December 25, 2014

Battle of the 2014 Books, Bracket One, First Round :: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer vs. The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten

Merry Christmas! We come to the midway mark of the first round in Bracket One of the Battle of the 2014 Books with Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer versus The Talent Sinistral by L.F. Patten. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Annihilation: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, February 2014, 195 pages, cover art by Eric Nyquist. Annihilation is Book 1 in VanderMeer's Southern Reach Trilogy, which continues with Authority and Acceptance. Our unnamed narrator is a biologist, part of a four-woman expedition into "Area X," a strange uninhabited place that has defeated eleven prior expeditions. The team immediately discovers a vast and mysterious subterranean structure, which our narrator insists on referring to as the "tower." Their initial trip down finds strange growths on the wall that spell out an odd message. Meanwhile, our protagonist realizes that the team leader, a psychologist, is using post-hypnotic suggestion to control the others.

Jeff VanderMeer is the acclaimed author of the Ambergris series, widely considered a landmark in the "New Weird" subgenre, among many other works. He has won the World Fantasy Award for his writing and his editing and has been nominated for the Nebula Award for Best Novel, among many other honors.

The Talent Sinistral: Stone Dagger trade paperback, January 2014, 435 pages, cover art by M.S. Harris. The Talent Sinistral is a fantasy epic in which certain outcasts bearing a brand on their left hands possess psychic talents. In the opening pages one of these sinistral, a somber fellow named Kier, is ambushed, only to be rescued by a brash young man named JonMarc. Kier is surprised to discover JonMarc is a slave. Before long, JonMarc's master is murdered, and Kier moves quickly to help prove JonMarc's innocence. As far as I can determine, The Talent Sinistral is the first published work by L.F. Patten.

The Battle: To be honest, often a first-round match between an acclaimed author and a new self-published writer turns out to be no contest, for many new indie writers can't actually write. But this time I have to put some thought into deciding this battle because, I am pleased to report, L.F. Patten can really write. So let's get to it . . .

Right out of the blocks, there is something very peculiar about the expedition in Annihilation. We do not know just when or where this is happening, and we're not sure the members of the expedition know either. The members are not permitted such basic equipment as a cell phone, but they do carry things they don't understand:
Our most outlandish equipment consisted of a measuring device that had been issued to each of us, which hung from a strap on our belts: a small rectangle of black metal with a glass-covered hole in the middle. If the hole glowed red, we had thirty minutes to remove ourselves to "a safe place." We were not told what the device measured or why we should be afraid should it glow red.
I'm going on a limb and saying these ain't pagers. Serious shit is going on here, and somebody has deliberately chosen to keep the members of this expedition in the dark. Through 25 pages, we haven't gotten very deep into the characters, but they have enough personality and there is enough hint of our narrator running from an unhappy past to keep us interested.

The strength of the opening pages of The Talent Sinistral is the development of the relationship between our two main characters, Kier and JonMarc. Kier quickly comes to find JonMarc equal parts fascinating and infuriating, as in this scene, where they argue about the morality of just how the streetwise JonMarc saved Kier:
"I'm grateful for the rescue. Truly. But to murder a man by stealth, without even bothering to confront him——it just isn't . . ."

"Honorable." JonMarc spat the word. "Then tell me, how would you have done it, Captain?"

"I'd have tapped his shoulder and taken him as he turned."

A caustic laugh. . . . "Take my advice, brassy. If you mean to explore Castémaron's back alleys after dark, learn to respect those who make their living out there, preying off such as you. Leave your highborn niceties behind. . . ."

JonMarc's patronizing tone infuriated Kier. . . . "That's a load of tripe. Without those so-called 'niceties,' we'd all live like wild beasts, preying off one another. What kind of survival's worth that?"

"Mine is."
I like that Patten allows both men a valid point, without loading the deck in favor of either. And if you're expecting that JonMarc protests overmuch and will turn out to have a heart of gold, the fact that he is later found to have stolen from Kier might give you pause.

I'm enjoying both these books through 25 pages and would be pleased to keep reading either. But the intractable Battle of the Books rules require me to choose one. My decision comes down to two factors.

First, Annihilation scores a lot of points for originality. The surreal writing style is distinctive, and the opening section promises an unusual story, different from anything I've read in recent memory. Meanwhile, The Talent Sinistral, although nicely written, is setting up a pretty standard swords-and-sorcery tale. There's nothing wrong with swords and sorcery, but Annihilation is harder to put down because it is so different.

Second, Annihilation has moved deeper into the plot through 25 pages. I don't know what's going on yet, but I've seen enough weirdness and picked up enough hints about the strings tugging at our characters that I am intrigued and want to read more. Through 25 pages, The Talent Sinistral has introduced two of the main characters, but we have no idea what they're going to do for the rest of the book; the good-against-evil struggle mentioned on the back cover has yet to materialize in any way. And the Battle of the Books format can be unforgiving of slow developing storylines.

THE WINNER: Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

Annihilation continues into the second round, where it will take on What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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