Osama: Solaris, October 2012 (published in UK by PS Publishing in 2011), 302 pages, cover art by Pedro Marques. Lavie Tidhar is an Israeli writer now living in London. Osama won the 2012 World Fantasy Award. Osama defeated The Steam Mole by Dave Freer to advance to the second round.
The setting of Osama is an alternate universe where Osama Bin Laden is the hero of a series of adventure pulp novels called Osama Bin Laden: Vigilante. Tidhar's narrative peppers in passages from those novels, which describe terrorist attacks that actually occurred in our universe. In the opening 25 pages, an enigmatic woman asks our protagonist Joe, a Western detective living in Laos, to find the author of the Osama Bin Laden books. In the second 25 pages, Joe travels to Paris, where the books are published. He asks a lady of the night about the books. She knows them, but when he seeks more information she bursts out, "They should leave Papa D alone," and promptly leaves.
Beyond Here Lies Nothing: Solaris, August 2012, 352 pages, cover art by Vincent Chong. Gary McMahon is the author of a number of books, mostly horror. Beyond Here Lies Nothing is the third book in the Concrete Grove Trilogy. Beyond Here Lies Nothing defeated A Red Sun Also Rises by Mark Hodder to advance to the second round.
After a prologue from a child's diary describing a bogeyman that goes "clikcety clikcety," the first 25 pages of Beyond Here Lies Nothing introduced us to Marc Price, who is researching the odd township of Concrete Grove. In the second 25 pages, Marc goes home with a strange woman named Abby, who he learns had a daughter who disappeared a few years earlier. We also meet a detective named Royle, driven to alcoholism by the unsolved disappearances in Concrete Grove. In a poignant phone call, we learn that Royle's pregnant wife has moved out until he can control his drinking.
The Battle: Here are two books with solid openings, both of which I genuinely want to keep reading.
Osama takes me to an intriguing universe where al Qaeda's terrorist rampage was somehow contained within the pages of a series of pulp novels. Beyond Here Lies Nothing introduces me to a memorably creepy section of London. Both books take the time for me to get to know their main characters, believable people with relatable problems.
Through 50 pages, I can already say that these are both strong novels well worth checking out. But the Battle of the Books rules devised by some idiot (me) require that I choose only one of the two books to keep reading. I know which one I have to choose, for a nitpicky reason and for a significant reason.
The nitpicky reason goes to the author's writing styles. The writing in Osama is, to my tastes, pitch perfect so far. If I had been in a writing group with Lavie Tidhar and had read this manuscript, I would have told him there's a typo on page 57 and had nothing else to say. The writing of Beyond Here Lies Nothing is also good, but I can find things to quibble with. There are some turns of phrase that don't quite work for me. (E.g., when Marc kisses Abby, "Her thin lips were hard; her large mouth was soft and wet" -- this throws me out of the story as I try to figure how someone could have hard lips but a soft mouth.) And there are several passages where a character perceives everyday places and objects as ominous, for instance:
The empty play park opposite looked different, as if subtle changes had occurred. The swings rocked slowly, the roundabout turned as if it had been pushed gently by an invisible hand; the climbing frame seemed as if it were tensed for movement, like a large spider waiting to pounce.By itself, I rather like this passage. The problem is that there are a dozen other passages just like it, and for me a little of this sort of thing goes a long way. I prefer Tidhar's relative restraint, for instance pausing to describe airplane passengers as "like silkworm larvae in their soft cocoons" and then quickly moving on.
The more significant reason is that Osama has managed to draw me into the story slowly, taking time for strong characterization, while still giving me a pretty good sense of what to expect. This is a tale of alternate universes, where the bin Laden of our universe becomes a pulp hero in another universe. The sorry detective sent to get to the bottom of this is not going to like what he finds. I want to read that. Meanwhile, Beyond Here Lies Nothing also builds slowly with good characterization, but it hasn't given me a sense of the story's big picture. I know it is a horror novel where people, especially young girls, are apt to disappear forever. But I have no sense of what's behind it all, other than that it goes "clikcety clikcety." That's not quite enough to hook me through 50 pages. (Even so, it's made me want to seek out a copy of McMahon's The Concrete Grove, to try this series from the start.)
THE WINNER: Osama by Lavie Tidhar
Osama advances to the semifinals to take on The Diviners by Libba Bray.
To see the whole bracket, click here.