Friday, July 05, 2013

Battle of the Books, Bracket Six, Second Round :: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress vs. Pazuzu's Girl by Rachel Coles

Apologies for neglecting the Battle of the Books recently; I've been distracted by some turmoil in my private life. (No, I'm not saying what -- this ain't that kind of a blog, eh?) I'll try to pick it up through the end of this bracket, and then Fantastic Reviewers Patty and Amy will be coming to my rescue, judging two of the next three brackets.

With that, we now continue the second round of Bracket Six of the Fantastic Reviews Battle of the Books with the matchup of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress versus Pazuzu's Girl by Rachel Coles. The winner will be the book I (Aaron) most want to continue reading after the first 50 pages.

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall: Tachyon trade paperback, April 2012, 183 pages, cover design by Elizabeth Story. After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is a current nominee for the Hugo Award for Best Novella, and it recently won the Nebula and Locus Awards. It reached the second round by defeating The Skybound Sea by Sam Sykes.

The opening of After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall introduced three parallel timelines. In the present day, mathematician and single mother-to-be Julie Kahn analyzes the pattern behind a series of strange child abductions. In the very near future, new strains of bacteria are mutating. A generation into the future, the last few surviving humans cling to life with a time machine, which they use to obtain supplies and reinforcements from the past. They believe aliens they call the Tesslies have destroyed the world and preserved the survivors for unknown reasons. The second 25 pages focus primarily on the future survivors, including the dynamics between the last survivors of the old days, the few people born in captivity (so to speak) who lived, and the children snatched from the past.

Pazuzu's Girl: JournalStone trade paperback, February 2012, 266 pages, cover art by Philip Renne. Pazuzu's Girl is the first novel by Rachel Coles. It advanced to the second round with a win over Technomancer by B.V. Larson.

The title character of Pazuzu's Girl is Morpho Wilson, living in modern-day suburbia with her father, the Mesopotamian demon Pazuzu. Pazuzu alternates between human form and existing as a plague of locusts, but Morpho has no such supernatural talent. Through 50 pages, we have had multiple hints that Morpho is in danger from her father's former demon lover, who killed Morpho's mother just as Morpho was born. Morpho also faces a more mundane threat from some nasty schoolmates.

The Battle: This was a much closer battle than expected. The Nancy Kress book is currently cleaning up in the awards season, while Pazuzu's Girl is the first novel by an unheralded author, but Rachel Coles held her own nicely.

Pazuzu's Girl features a solid story with some nice touches of humor. I feel that the narrative voice falters at time, and there is a scene of an attempted rape that could have been handled better——for one thing, it's the protagonist being attacked, yet Coles slips into the point of view of a minor character for that scene, which feels like a cop-out. But when Coles hits her stride, the writing is impressive, as in this scene shortly after Morpho's attack, when she uses the bathroom in her prospective boyfriend's house:
The light was burnt out, so she cracked the door and maneuvered by the sliver of hall light. As she was rinsing her hands, she surveyed her pale face and leaped back with a start. Ghostly silver moths fluttered in the mirror in front of her. But there were no moths visible outside the mirror, in the air.

She waved her hand before her reflected image and the moths in the mirror moved aside for the picture of her hand. Then they alighted on the image of her arm and shoulder. She felt a slight tingle where the moths landed. She quickly brushed her sholders and arms in a panic, though there was nothing there. As her trembling hand reached the door, a faint female voice whispered her name, pleading.

"Morpho, you know me."

"How do you know my name?"

"I named you. I am your mother."

The words dropped into a well of silence around Morpho.
After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall is also very nicely written, and Kress varies the narrative voice for her different timelines perfectly. So far I'm particularly enjoying the "after the fall" scenes, which present some interesting group dynamics among the survivors, while simultaneously conveying in simple language a heavy sense of loss. Here, for example, the de facto leader of the survivors, McAllister, tells our viewpoint character Pete that she has named an infant he snatched "Petra" in his honor:
Petra. Despite himself, Pete rolled the name on his tongue, savoring it as once——only once——he'd savored "candy" that Paolo had Grabbed when he'd found himself sent to a store. They'd all had a piece. Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, McAllister had called them. Feeling the astounding sweetness dissolve on his tongue, Pete had hated the Tesslies all over again. This, this, this——he might have had a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup every day of his life! A whole Peanut Butter Cup, every day!

He might even have had a woman like McAllister.
I am enjoying both these books through 50 pages, but forced to choose only one to continue, I have to stick with Nancy Kress.

THE WINNER: After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall by Nancy Kress

After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall advances to the semifinals, where it will take on Earth Unaware by Orson Scott Card & Aaron Johnston.

To see the whole bracket, click here.

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