Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Battle of the Books, Fall 2012, Second Round :: Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson

We start the second round of the Fall 2012 Battle of the Books with Hemlock Grove by Brian McGreevy vs. Further: Beyond the Threshold by Chris Roberson. The winner will be the book I most want to continue reading after 50 pages.

Hemlock Grove: Farrar, Straus & Giroux trade paperback, April 2012, 318 pages, cover art by Matt Buck. Hemlock Grove advanced to the second round by defeating Dave Freer's Cuttlefish in the first round.

In the first 25 pages we met 17-year-old Peter Rumancek, who is suspected by the other local teens of being a werewolf and possibly responsible for the death of a young woman in the woods. The second 25 pages remove any doubt as to Peter being a werewolf, and another murder occurs. Meanwhile, we've spent more time with Peter's classmate Roman and his very rich and very weird family, including his mother and uncle who are having an affair with each other, and his deformed, seven-foot-tall sister named Shelley (get it?).

Further: Beyond the Threshold: 47North trade paperback, May 2012, 343 pages, cover art by Marcel Clemens & Algol. Further got past Royal Street by Suzanne Johnson to get here.

In the opening, we saw Ramachandra Jason (RJ) Stone, captain of the first interstellar voyage, wake from suspended animation to learn his ship was struck by a micrometeor. He is the only survivor, and 12,000 years have passed. In the next 25 pages, RJ and his guide, in the form of a metallic eagle, travel by wormhole gate to a dramatically transformed Earth, populated by a wide variety of humans, post-humans, and artificial intelligences. RJ is an instant celebrity. We know from the back of the book that another interstellar mission is in RJ's future.

The Battle: Werewolf stories have been done to death in recent years, and stories about a man waking up in the far future had been done to death before I was born. The lesson of today's Battle of the Books is that even a tired old story concept can be a lot of fun in the hands of a talented writer. Both Hemlock Grove and Further make for interesting and entertaining reading through 50 pages.

The quirky characters of Hemlock Grove make this feel like a werewolf story the way David Lynch might do one. Roman's family brings some soap opera elements to the story and McGreevy throws in genuine horror touches, notably a memorable description of Peter's transformation to a werewolf——he literally tears his human skin off to reveal the wolf underneath. McGreevy varies the tone of the story from scene to scene, and so far that's working well.

There is a wonderful exuberance to how Further: Beyond the Threshold attacks the far future. Roberson gives a dizzying array of details about his future Earth, including believable touches such as RJ unwittingly offending his guide by suggesting that AIs aren't "human" and quickly attracting fans nostalgic for Earth's past:
If I squinted, the two men might have passed for 20C Americans, but they wouldn't have stood up to any kind of scrutiny. They wore suits, ties, and hats such as were common in that era, but exaggerated to ridiculous extremes. The result was a sort of stylized zoot suit, such as those worn by lecherous wolves in old Tex Avery cartoons. As I drew near, the look on their faces was so hungry, so near lust, that I almost fancied I could see their hearts pounding out of their ribcages, their tongues rolling out like red carpets.
It's a nice touch that often RJ's best way of making sense of everything he sees is to relate it to virtual reality games he played as a kid.

While I'm definitely enjoying both of these books, I'm required to pick one to move into the semifinals. The Battle of the Books is inherently subjective, and I'm more in the target audience for one of these novels. The soap-opera aspects of Hemlock Grove don't have much appeal for me, while the whiz-bang style of Further is right up my alley, providing the kind of sense of wonder that I love.


Further: Beyond the Threshold advances to the semifinals, to face either Dark Magic by James Swain or The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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