Sunday, January 13, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, First Round :: Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Cuttlefish by Dave Freer

We begin the first round of the belated Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Cuttlefish by Dave Freer. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after 25 pages.

Hemlock Grove: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, April 2012, 318 pages, cover art by Matt Buck. Hemlock Grove is the first novel by new writer Brian McGreevy, but it has already been picked up for production as a television series, as part of Netflix's new line of original programming.

The book begins with discovery of the mutilated body of a young woman, possibly killed by an unidentified wild animal. In the eyes of local teenagers, this makes our 17-year-old protagonist Peter Rumancek a suspect, since he has admitted to being a werewolf. Through 25 pages, we're figuring he probably really is a werewolf, but perhaps he just said that because he likes to get a rise out of people. Peter is descended from gypsies; he has an offbeat way of looking at things and has trouble fitting in. But unlike many teenaged protagonists, this genuinely doesn't seem to bother him.

So far we've also met Peter's 13-year-old neighbor Christina, who is fascinated with Peter's rebellious attitudes (Christina is the one who outed Peter as a werewolf, when she noticed his index and middle fingers were the same length), and his classmate Roman, a BMOC thanks to his very wealthy family. Roman also has a hint of the supernatural, and at the end of the first 25 pages, he pulls a Jedi mind trick on some policemen who catch Peter and Roman poking around the scene of the girl's death.

Cuttlefish: Pyr hardcover, July 2012, 288 pages, cover art by Paul Young. South African Dave Freer (now relocated to Australia) broke into the field with the science fiction novel The Forlorn in 1999. He has since concentrated on fantasy, in multiple collaborations with Eric Flint and Mercedes Lackey, as well as his solo Dragon's Ring series. (Incidentally, we seriously need to get Baen Books to start submitting to the Battle of the Books. The cover of the 2012 entry in that series, Dog and Dragon, shows Lassie riding on the back of a dragon——how cool is that?)

Cuttlefish is a young adult steampunk novel, named for the illegal coal-powered submarine where much of the action occurs. In this alternate history, Britain has maintained its empire well into the Twentieth Century, and the polar ice caps melted ahead of schedule. Our two young protagonists are Tim Barnabas, a young black crew member who grew up in the tunnels under a partially submerged London, and Clara Calland, a spunky Irish girl who has taken refuge with her mother on the Cuttlefish.

Clara and her mother are being pursued by the British government and by Russian agents. Most of the initial 25-page section consists of flashbacks to when Clara and her mother first went into hiding. The scope of the efforts taken to find them suggest that the mother has made a very important discovery.

The Battle: When we started getting YA books for the Battle of the Books, we considered putting them in a separate YA bracket, but I couldn't justify doing that. As an adult, I've read YA books I've enjoyed as much as anything on the market (e.g., Philip Pullman's The Golden Compass and Paolo Bacigalupi's Ship Breaker); whereas when I actually was a young adult, I usually preferred adult books to what were then called "juveniles." So what would be the point in trying to apply different criteria to books marketed as YA?

This battle is a case in point. While I enjoyed some aspects of the first four chapters of Cuttlefish——I particularly liked the details about the coal-powered submarine——the book did not grab me as much as the opening of Hemlock Grove. I wondered briefly if I was being unfair, since Cuttlefish is aimed at young readers (the marketing materials say ages 12 and up) while I'm deep into fogeyhood. Then I realized that the 13-year-old version of myself also would have preferred Hemlock Grove, and by a wider margin.

Hemlock Grove is definitely not written for young readers——in an early chapter an unnamed person gets a hummer from a prostitute——but I think many young readers would appreciate it. The main characters are themselves teenagers, and the narrative has a wiseass teen's cynical point of view. Plus, I think young readers have sharp ears for dialogue, and the first chapters of Hemlock Grove feature much more engaging dialogue than Cuttlefish, for example this scene where Christina asks Peter about being a werewolf:
"Can I be a werewolf?" she said.

"In theory," said Peter, evasive.

He dangled his arm, snapping his fingers a few times, and Fetchit came and nuzzled the back of his hand.

"Little prick," said Peter.

"Will you bite me?" said Christina.

"Don't be retarded," said Peter.

"Come on." She lifted her leg so her calf was level with him. "Look how young and tender."

"Get that skinny, sorry drumstick out of my face."
Cuttlefish presents an interesting steampunk alternate history, but the strong dialogue and quirky characters of Hemlock Grove give it the edge in this battle.


Hemlock Grove advances to the second round, to meet either Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson or Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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