Sunday, June 17, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Semifinal :: The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus vs. The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner

The Flame AlphabetMan from Primrose Lane
The second semifinal match of the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books pits The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus against James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round.

The Flame Alphabet: Alfred A. Knopf hardcover, January 2012, 289 pages, cover design by Peter Mendelsund. Ben Marcus is a highly regarded mainstream author, but The Flame Alphabet is his first science fiction or fantasy novel. It reached the second round by defeating Mark Chadbourn's The Burning Man in the opening round and Eric G. Wilson's Everyone Loves a Good Train Wreck in the second round.

In The Flame Alphabet, an epidemic has made children's speech toxic to adults. Over the first 50 pages, our protagonist Sam and his wife Claire realized that their teenaged daughter Esther was the source of their ailment. Over the next 50 pages, even as Claire's condition worsens badly, they prove unwilling to distance themselves from Esther. Sam attempts to understand the disease through useless experiments and advice from his strange neighbor and his secretive religion.

The Man from Primrose Lane: Farrar Straus & Giroux hardcover, March 2012, 365 pages, cover photo by Michael Lewis. The Man from Primrose Lane is true-crime writer James Renner's first novel. It reached the second round by defeating Weston Ochse's Blood Ocean in the first round and upsetting a "seeded" book, Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon, in the second round.

The opening 50 pages of The Man from Primrose Lane introduced the mystery, investigated by crime writer David Neff, of the murder of the reclusive Man from Primrose Lane (the "MFPL"). Over the next 50 pages, David meets with the detective assigned to the crime, who tells him the death may not have been murder at all, and with Katy Keenan, who never knew the MFPL and yet he kept a diary of her movements. All of this somehow connects to David's wife Elizabeth, who recently committed suicide, and whose twin sister was kidnapped as a girl and never heard from again.

The Battle: When mainstream authors write science fiction or fantasy, a key aspect they often get wrong is the suspension of disbelief. The reader has to feel like what's going on in the story is really happening, that it's not just a mental exercise. This requires the author to treat the fantastic elements seriously, and for the characters to react the way real people would (or at least might) if the story were actually taking place.

In the second 50-page section of The Flame Alphabet, Ben Marcus stumbles badly in this respect. In the first 50 pages, he established a worldwide affliction so severe it threatens the existence of the entire human race. But then he goes off on lengthy tangents about the protagonist's peculiar, secretive sect of Judaism. Sam has to go to a hut in the woods to hear sermons through a strangely organic "listener," which he assembles and is required to hide when the sermon is over. On page 80, Sam is mortified to realize he left the listener in the hut, so an outsider conceivably could hear one of the sermons. This scene would work fine in an angsty mainstream novel about a guy in a midlife crisis. In the middle of a story about the human race in an existential crisis, it feels completely trivial. Ditto Sam's sense of awkwardness in conversations with his weird neighbor. For Marcus to focus on these trivial aspects of the story suggests he is not taking his own apocalyptic story concept seriously.

Even worse, his characters don't seem to take it seriously. Neither the protagonist Sam nor his wife Claire nor anyone we've seen acts the way people would act if this story were really happening. By 50 pages into the novel, it has been established that people are dropping dead all over the place, and although nobody understands it, they all know the deaths are caused by the speech of children. Yet through 100 pages, with Claire nearing death, Sam has never once told his daughter Esther to shut the fuck up. In real life, parents tell their kids to shut up when they can't hear the television, but in this book Sam can't bring himself to say it with Claire's life in danger? On a societal level, Marcus has made passing reference to the fact that some parents have sent their children away or have gone to hide in the hills, but has failed to address the turmoil that would entail. How would people heading to the hills even survive, with society collapsing?

Another example: when some children pass by, the weird neighbor sticks some gloop into Sam's mouth and suddenly the children's speech isn't painful to Sam. This action was uninvited and undertandably upsets Sam. But it would take a real person about five seconds to get over that revulsion and say something like, "What was that stuff and can I have some for my dying wife?" Instead, Sam just avoids the guy.

Ben Marcus seems to be focused on the metaphorical import of his book's concept, at the expense of the story. So he shows roving packs of kids intentionally shouting at adults to hurt them for a lark. This may symbolize generational conflicts somehow, but on the level of story, I just don't buy it. I believe most kids would be worried for their families and afraid about what will happen if all the adults die; what's more, I think that would make for a more powerful story.

Meanwhile, in the second fifty-page section, the story of The Man from Primrose Lane just keeps getting better. Each scene in this section builds on one of the levels of the story, all of which work well individually, and we're starting to see more connections between the different levels.

So in one scene, David interviews Detective Sackett about the death of the MFPL. Sackett (the detective we saw in the Prologue, who I'm delighted to have back onstage) tells David that the victim did not die from his gunshot wound, but from blood loss when his fingers were cut off and put in his blender. Sackett believes the man cut off his own fingers to destroy his fingerprints, so as to continue to hide his identity, which also explains why he always wore mittens even in hot weather. At the same time, David learns that Sackett is conducting a cold-case investigation of a child abduction: the kidnapping of Elaine, the sister of David's late wife Elizabeth. David and Sackett both notice the uncanny resemblance between Elaine and Katy, the woman with whom the MFPL was obsessed. The realization about the fingers in the blender makes the mystery story more intriguing to me than a typical whodunit. At the same time, this scene establishes that the mystery is connected somehow to David, his late wife, and her missing sister. I'm skeptical that Renner can convincingly explain these coincidences, but at this point I'm enjoying things so much I don't care.

Before and after this interview, Renner gives us flashbacks to David and Elizabeth's wedding and honeymoon. Elizabeth was already mentally fragile at that time, and David knew it. So he panics when she says, "I can't do this," and urgently tries to convince her that things will work out, before realizing she meant she didn't know how to use her chopsticks. These scenes are charming, but with a bittersweet undercurrent, because the reader knows these happy times will turn sour enough for Elizabeth to commit suicide. Indeed, we learn she was already having suicidal thoughts even on the honeymoon, from which she turned aside in a terrific scene I don't want to spoil, except to say it relates to the mystery of the MFPL.

Renner follows that up with a sweet scene in the present day with David and his son Tanner, then an interview/date with Katy. We learn that Katy was nearly abducted as a girl in the same way Elaine was ten years earlier, but was apparently saved by the MFPL. Meanwhile, Renner throws in little details, like Tanner's obsessive hobby and odd pictures of people with clown noses in the restaurant where David takes Katy, which are amusing but also relevant to the story. And we finally get some fantastic elements, for example flashbacks to creepy and inexplicable events that followed the materials sent by an executed serial murderer to the paper where David worked when he first became a crime writer.

Then the fifty-page section ends with David realizing he is a suspect in the death of the MFPL.

If a book gets to the semifinals of the Battle of the Books, it means I really like the author's writing and the story concept. Now in the semifinals, as I get deeper into the tale, the question is whether the author can maintain and build on whatever interested me in the story, or whether things will start to unravel. In pages 51-100, The Flame Alphabet lost me, while James Renner successfully pulled me deeper into the story of The Man from Primrose Lane.


The Man from Primrose Lane advances to the championship match, to take on The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, First Semifinal :: Hell Train by Christopher Fowler vs. The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

Hell TrainThe Night Sessions
The first semifinal of the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books matches Hell Train by Christopher Fowler against The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod. The book I most want to continue reading after 100 pages will advance to the championship round.

Hell Train: Solaris paperback, January 2012, 319 pages, cover art by Graham Humphreys. Five-time British Fantasy Award winner Christopher Fowler has written some thirty books, most of them horror or mystery. Hell Train got to the semifinals with wins over Greatshadow by James Maxey in the first round and Tempest by Julie Cross in the second round.

After an initial scene in 1966, in which a screenwriter is asked to write a new horror movie for Hammer Films involving a train, the story of Hell Train has settled into a World War I setting. British con artist Nicholas Castleford has persuaded Isabella, an Eastern European beauty, to run away with him, and they have escaped the locals on an ominous train. Also catching the train are an English vicar and his shrewish wife (I can say "shrewish" without fear of being accused of gender bias, since Fowler actually describes her with that word), a fortune-telling countess, and a young man wracked with guilt over his role in the start of the Great War.

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 and Simon Bestwick's The Faceless in the second round.

The Night Sessions is set in a future where the bitter "Faith Wars" have turned most folks in the West against organized religion. While much of the first 50 pages followed J.R. Campbell, a Christian fundamentalist from New Zealand, pages 51-100 exclusively track Scottish Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his leki assistant (the robot on the cover) as they investigate the murders of two Catholic priests. They collar a suspect, but the clues against the man are so obvious—he delivered the package containing the bomb that killed the first priest, and he was spotted with a rifle in the area where the second priest was shot—that anyone who has read many mysteries must doubt he's the real culprit.

The Battle: These two books are a hoot, and based on the first 100 pages, I strongly recommend them both. Each delivers exactly what it promises to readers. This battle will come down to which book adds an extra unexpected element.

Hell Train is a pitch-perfect literary homage to the Hammer Studios horror films of the 1950s and '60s. I'm not sure yet if Peter Cushing should play the rogue Nicholas, but the train's conductor is all Christopher Lee:
The figure slowly turned to stare at him, as he might peer at an insect. He had a pair of lethal-looking silver clippers in his right hand. 'I am the Conductor of the Arkangel,' he replied in perfect English. He was as pale as ivory. The low timbre of his voice resonated from somewhere deep and far away. Although deeply set in the caves of his skull, his shining black eyes missed no detail.

'Well, what is our destination?' asked Nicholas sharply.

'That must depend on you.'

'Perhaps you didn't understand the question. Where does the train terminate?'

'We need to stay on board until we cross the border,' asked Isabella. 'Is that possible?'

'You will finally come upon a border, yes.'
Hell Train isn't all that frightening so far, but the mood of the piece is just right.

Meanwhile, The Night Sessions presents a most interesting future in which there has been a backlash against organized religion. Many science fiction novels assume that society will move away from religion in the future, but fail to consider the turmoil that shift would entail. MacLeod does a wonderful job of showing the uneasy new equilibrium in his secular future. What's more, the murders of two of the remaining Catholic priests suggest that some of the anti-religious forces are just as fanatical and intolerant as any religious fundamentalist. All this is presented in a future with interesting extrapolations of current political and technological trends. Very nice near-future SF from one of the top writers in the field.

So what's the tie-breaking extra element? I absolutely love the artificially intelligent robots in The Night Sessions. Piltdown, the humanoid robot stuck playing an ape-man in a creationist park, was a star of the first 50 pages, and now in the second 50 pages, we start to see the personality of Skulk, Detective Ferguson's tripedal leki assistant, as in this scene where he analyzes some threatening anti-Catholic literature:
". . . Taken together, the broadsides are—to use an old term—a fatwa, a legal ruling by a competent religious scholar. Consequently, if we were to find someone who did accept these premises we would have a prima facie suspect."

"Sometimes," said Ferguson, "I suspect the expression 'No shit, Sherlock' was coined with lekis in mind."

"It was not," said Skulk. "The earliest examples of the usage pre-date—"

"I was joking," Ferguson interrupted.

"So was I," said Skulk. "I appreciate your humour." 
His robots' dry wit put MacLeod over the top.


The Night Sessions advances to the championship match, where it will face either The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus or The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012 :: Final Four

We are down to the Final Four in the Spring 2012 Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books:
Hell TrainThe Night Sessions

The Flame AlphabetMan from Primrose Lane

Hell Train by Christopher Fowler vs. The Night Sessions by Ken MacLeod

The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus vs. The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner

We will announce the Christopher Fowler / Ken MacLeod winner on Thursday, the Ben Marcus / James Renner contest on Saturday, then crown a champion next week.

Once again the bracket as a whole has contained a great many interesting and well-written books, with not many clunkers. In some cases I've felt guilty about having to drop good books after only 25 or 50 pages, but the upside is we've gotten to help spread the word about many more new books than I could possibly have reviewed under our old format.

Three of the four "seeded" books made it to the Final Four; the only upset was James Renner over Saladin Ahmed's Throne of the Crescent Moon. I am a bit surprised that two of the four semifinalists, Renner and Ben Marcus, are not genre namesI sometimes think I have a prejudice against mainstream writers dabbling in our genre, but it hasn't manifested in the Spring Battle of the Books.

Thanks again to all the authors and publicists sending us great books to consider. If you're an author or publicist, click here for the rules and an address to send your book if you'd like to be included in a future bracket.

We have had a tremendous response to the Battle of the Books format; indeed, we seriously need to pick up our pace over the next couple monthswe already have enough new books to fill out three more brackets! My fellow Fantastic Reviewer Amy has offered to start judging some contests to help us catch up.

Everybody remember to check back here over the next week for the Final Four results!

Monday, June 04, 2012

Battle of the Books, Spring 2012, Second Round :: The Man from Primrose Lane by James Renner vs. Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed

Man from Primrose LaneThrone of the Crescent Moon

For our final second round match of the Spring 2012 Battle of the Books, James Renner's The Man from Primrose Lane squares off against Throne of the Crescent Moon by Saladin Ahmed. The book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages will be the last entrant in the Final Four of this bracket.

The Man from Primrose Lane: Farrar Straus & Giroux hardcover, March 2012, 365 pages, cover photo by Michael Lewis. The Man from Primrose Lane is the first novel by true-crime writer James Renner. It reached the second round by defeating Weston Ochse's Blood Ocean in the first round.

Billed as a cross-genre book, the first 50 pages of The Man from Primrose Lane start with a murder mystery, about crime writer David Neff investigating the murder of the strange and reclusive "Man from Primrose Lane." In the first 25 pages, we learned that David's wife Elizabeth recently committed suicide, and he is barely managing to hold himself together for the benefit of their son Tanner. The next 25 pages begin with a flashback to David and Elizabeth falling in love in college. In the present day, David takes Tanner to a peculiar museum, then meets Katy Keenan, a key figure in his investigationthe Man from Primrose Lane kept a diary of her activities, even though they were strangers. It's hinted that Katy may be Elizabeth's lost twin sister, who was abducted as a child (but Renner will have to work hard to justify the coincidence if she is).

Throne of the Crescent Moon: DAW hardcover, February 2012, 274 pages, cover art by Jason Chan. Throne of the Crescent Moon is also a first novel, but Saladin Ahmed is already well known to many genre readers for his short fiction, which has garnered him a Nebula nomination for best short story and two Campbell Award nominations for best new writer. Throne of the Crescent Moon got here with a rather lop-sided first-round win over Revealing Eden by Victoria Foyt.

Throne of the Crescent Moon is a fantasy novel set in a medieval Arabic society. In the first 25 pages, we met Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, the last ghul hunter in the great city of Dhamsawaat. He's received the call to battle, even though he's getting too old for this sort of thing. In the next 25 pages, Adoulla fights off a group of ghuls with the help of his small but dangerous assistant Raseed and Zamia, a young woman who can change into a lion, whose tribe was slaughtered by the ghuls. Along the way, Adoulla and Raseed encounter the Falcon Prince, who urges overthrow of the ruling Khalif in oddly 21st Century termshis followers actually use the rallying cry "Share the wealth!"

The Battle: This is a rare instance where the book that would have won after 25 pages is not my winner after 50 pages.

Throne of the Crescent Moon had an outstanding opening sequence, showing us a strong fantasy setting with an Arabic feel, a very interesting pair of villains who do horrible things not because they enjoy doing evil but because their blood magic uses fear as fuel, and an aging hero who would much rather spend the afternoon drinking tea than continuing to fight the denizens of hell.

The opening of The Man from Primrose Lane was also solid, but less distinctive than Throne of the Crescent Moon. The beginning sequence is straight mystery (through 50 pages there still are no fantastic elements, although the scene with Elektro the Robot will have nostaligic appeal to SF readers), and struck me as less memorable than Ahmed's, although I liked the offbeat feel to his story and characters.

So Renner had an uphill battle to try to overcome Throne of the Crescent Moon. He did it with a crafty old authorial trick: he got me to care about his characters.

The flashbacks to David and Elizabeth falling in love despite, or perhaps because of, her obsessive-compulsive tendencies are believable and charming. The Elektro the Robot scene introduces some themes of the story while showing us David's imperfect but loving relationship with his son. And the glimpse of Katy at the end of the first 50 pages suggests a wonderfully quirky character I'd like to see more of. The characters all have real depth, and even though Renner is easing us slowly into the mystery story, he's dropped enough hints for us to feel that what he's showing us will prove meaningful.

Meanwhile, in pages 26-50, Saladin Ahmed didn't draw me into the different levels of his story as successfully as Renner did. The introduction to the Falcon Prince left me cold—to my tastes it takes more subtlety than this to bring modern political concepts into a medieval fantasy storyand the initial battle with ghuls was pretty standard swords-and-sorcery fare. More importantly, the characters didn't develop much through this section. The intriguing villains have been offstage since Chapter 1. I like the concept of an elderly fantasy hero, but in this passage Adoulla's age was a non-issue; the battle should have left him exhausted, but didn't seem to affect him at all. We get a chapter from the point of view of his devout assistant Raseed, which portrayed him as so uptight I can't find him believable or interesting.

This is sounding too harsh. Saladin Ahmed is a talented new writer, whose Campbell nominations were well-deserved. I look forward to finishing both Throne of the Crescent Moon and The Man from Primrose Lane. But forced to choose only one of the two to keep reading, I'd have to continue down Primrose Lane.


The Man from Primrose Lane moves into the semefinals to face The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.

To see the whole bracket, click here.