Friday, May 18, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Round :: The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod vs. The Faceless by Simon Bestwick

The Night SessionsThe Faceless
We continue the second round of the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books with The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod versus The Faceless by Simon Bestwick. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will move on to the semifinals.

The Night Sessions: Pyr trade paperback, April 2012, 261 pages, cover art by Stephan Martiniere. Ken MacLeod is a four-time Hugo nominee among many other honors, and The Night Sessions won the 2009 British Science Fiction Award for best novel. The Night Sessions reached the second round of the Battle of the Books by defeating The Demi-Monde:Winter by Rod Rees in the first round.

The first 25 pages of The Night Sessions introduced us to J.R. Campbell, a Christian fundamentalist from New Zealand, in a future when Western governments have turned very solidly secular after the devastating "Faith Wars." In the next 25 pages, we see Campbell tending to the intelligent robots in a creationist park. Meanwhile, in Scotland, Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his robot sidekick lead the investiation of an apparent terrorist bombing that killed a Catholic priest. We've also briefly met Dave Warsaw, a night club disk jockey who combines music with virtual reality imagery.

The Faceless: Solaris paperback, February 2012, 470 pages, cover art by Luke Preece. Simon Bestwick is a horror and crime fiction author who has been nominated for the British Fantasy Award. The Faceless got here with a first round win over Shadow's Master by Jon Sprunk.

The Faceless is set in northwest England, where strange masked figures are wreaking havoc. In the first 25 pages, Anna Mason was left to care for her young niece after the mysterious figures killed her sister-in-law, leaving her brother severely depressed. Anna had her own bout of mental illness years earlier, during which she saw the same (imaginary, she thought) masked figures. Much of the next 25 pages follow Detective Chief Inspector Joan Renwick, who is investigating a series of disappearances, which she hasn't yet connected to the masked people. Several short flashbacks suggest that all this is somehow related to men who were badly injured in World War I.

The Battle: We have here two well-written novels, both of which are engaging from the outset. I have nothing the least bit negative to say about either, but the Battle of the Books forces me to choose only one to continue, so which one do I like that little bit more?

I like each book's central concept. They both involve police investigations related to an interesting genre premise. I enjoy a good creepy story, and The Faceless nicely ties in the horrors of World War I and a local legend about the masked "Spindlies." The Night Sessions has a lot of good science fictional scenery, and I find the future after a religious war involving fundamentalist Christians intriguing. Solid marks for both books, but I'm a bit more interested to see where The Night Sessions is going with its story concept.

The characterization is excellent in both books. In the second 25-page section, The Faceless had some charming and witty banter between Chief Inspector Renwick and a grizzled but kind-hearted Sergeant Stakowski. I'm slightly less interested in the cops in The Night Sessions, except I like their intelligent robot assistants. But I love the interplay at the creationist park in New Zealand between Campbell (who is a creationist), park guide Vermuelen (not), and an AI robot named Piltdown, one of the park's attractions. In this scene, Vermuelen comes upon Piltdown's detached head as Campbell tinkers with the robot's body:
"Back problem?" he said.
The head moved as if trying to nod. "Yes," it said. "Stripped a gear in my lumbar hinge. Fucking baraminologists."
"Language," chided Campbell, not looking up.
"From the Hebrew," explained the robot head, wilfully misunderstanding. "Bara min, meaning 'created kind,' a very flexible taxon indeed."
"I don't quite follow," said Vermuelen. "What have creationist taxonomists got to do with your back?"
"A few weeks ago," said the head, "they reclassified my kind from 'fully human post-Diluvial local variety' to 'extinct large-brained ape.'. . . So suddenly I've got to start shambling around like a half-shut knife, swinging my arms and grunting. It's demeaning, I tell you. And it's done my back in. I expect my neck will be next."
"Your neck's fine," said Campbell. "Just keep applying the WD-40."
It's nice to know that the ultimate answer to any engineering challenge remains the same well into the future!

As much as I'm enjoying The Faceless, it's The Night Sessions that I really don't want to put down.

The Night Sessions advances to meet another creepy book from Solaris, Christopher Fowler's Hell Train, in the semifinals.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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