Category Archives: murder

Books about murder.

Review 206: Cold Days

LL 206 - Dresden 14 - Cold DaysCold Days by Jim Butcher

Hells Bells count: 35

Be Warned: This is a new volume, so if you’re not up to date then you might want to save this one for later!

Sometimes I wonder how much Jim Butcher had planned in advance. I mean, this is book number fourteen of a series that’s been going for twelve years. Whether he’s got a giant, intricate plot map pinned up along the walls of his writing office or he’s making things up as they go along, I’m impressed. As we get further into the exciting life and times of Harry Dresden, one thing that is clear is that the series has always been moving in a very clear direction, and that the things that came before are what inform the things that come later. Jim Butcher is not a wasteful author, and that gives him the ability to do a lot of really impressive things.

As we open this story, Harry Dresden is no longer dead. He was, sort of, and had all kinds of grand fun as a ghost, but now he’s alive and it’s time for him to start paying off the debts that he incurred in the process of dying. The first of these debts is to Mab, the great and terrible queen of the Winter Faerie.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it'll do.

Not this kind of Winter Knight, but it’ll do.

Many, many books ago, Mab offered Harry the position of the Winter Knight – a mortal who would be the strong arm of the queen. He would be her sword, to strike where she pointed. Harry refused until he could refuse no longer, taking on that mantle in exchange for the power that would allow him to rid the world of the Red Court of vampires. And as much fun as vampire genocide is, that’s not really his job anymore. Now that he’s alive again and under no other obligations, Mab has a purpose for him. At its face, it is a terrible purpose, one that makes no sense and yet which Harry is obligated to fulfill.

On the other hand, there is Demonreach. Mab’s partner in keeping Harry Dresden’s body… let’s say viable while he was away as a ghost, Demonreach is the spirit of an island in the middle of Lake Michigan. This island isn’t on any maps, and it’s devilishly hard to find, but it represents a huge well of magical and spiritual power. This island needs Harry Dresden in order to do its duty. Demonreach is not just an obscure Brigadoon that enjoys hiding from the eyes of the unworthy – it is a guardian against powers that would ravage the world. If it is going to maintain its control and keep the peace, it needs Harry Dresden.

While all this is going on, we learn of a new force that is at play in the world. This is rather in keeping with the way the Dresden Files books have worked thus far. Every so often, our point of view is changed, and our field of vision is expanded. Way back in Storm Front, Harry Dresden was a small-time wizard investigator, not well-loved in the wizarding community but good at what he did, and that was pretty much all we saw. As the series progressed, we discovered more about the White Council of Wizards, the three Courts of Vampires, about the ever-feuding faerie realms of Winter and Summer. We went on to discover angels and demons and things that walked between them, ghosts and goblins and creatures that were just barely understandable by our mortal minds.

"KNOCK KNOCK"

“KNOCK KNOCK”

Now we take another step back, out beyond the borders of our reality as we know it. Outside our universe, there are… things. And those things want in. Why they want in is not really understood. Maybe this universe is more hospitable, maybe they’re just bored. All we know is that to let them in is to let reality as we know it die. That’s bad enough, but what is worse is the knowledge that some of them are already here. They’ve snuck under the walls, so to speak, and are carefully and busily undermining our defenses. In a game that is so intricate and dangerous, these things use great powers as pawns – including Harry Dresden – and look forward to their inevitable victory.

As with so many of the other Dresden Files books, this is a solid read, and you’ll fly right through it. Despite being vast in scope, encompassing the fate of the world as we know it, the book is still very personal, letting us follow Harry along the strange, winding path he has to walk whether he likes it or not. Harry has always been a dangerous guy to know, but now that he’s the Winter Knight, that danger is even greater. There are forces arrayed against him that he wouldn’t be able to understand even if he knew what they were, and simply being the Winter Knight is a challenge unto itself. Taking up that position doesn’t just come with awesome new powers and a direct line to some of the most powerful creatures in creation – not without a price. There are obligations as well. Rules and requirements. And, of course, dangers.

When he’s done, he’ll have more answers, and he’ll have more problems. Whatever comes next, we can be sure it will be even bigger and scarier than what has come before, and it’ll be a treat to see how he manages to beat it.

——
“I kept a straight face while my inner Neanderthal spluttered and then went on a mental rampage through a hypothetical produce section, knocking over shelves and spattering fruit everywhere in sheer frustration, screaming, ‘JUST TELL ME WHOSE SKULL TO CRACK WITH MY CLUB, DAMMIT!'”
– Harry Dresden

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Review 199: The Killing Moon

The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin

I have two words for you: Ninja. Priests.

There you go, that should really be enough for you to go out and buy this book. I suppose if you need more, though, there is a whole “plot” and “world” and “characters” and stuff. But even Jemisin says that the initial idea that got her started writing was ninja priests, and everything else just kind of built up from there.

Welcome, then, to the great land of Gujaareh, a land not entirely unlike our own ancient Egypt. It rests alongside a great river that floods periodically and brings great wealth and prosperity to the land. The whole world lives in the shadow of their great, striated Dreaming Moon, the perpetual manifestation of their goddess, Hananja. In this city, people live healthy, productive lives, and it is all thanks to Hananja’s devoted priesthood and their arts of narcomancy.

Not this kind of ninja priest, though…

The Gatherers of Hananja are able to take dreamstuff from sleeping people, either willingly or otherwise, and their most honored task is to take from those whom their governing council have decided need to die. The terminally ill, perhaps, or the corrupt – these are the ones whom the Gatherers visit, giving them a final dream before sending their soul into the dreaming world embodied by their goddess.

Ehiru is the best of these Gatherers, a man with a deft touch and absolute devotion to his cause. He is told to gather and he gathers, bringing back the various dreamstuffs to the temple, where the Sharers can use it to heal the afflicted of Gujaareh. Indeed, until now, Ehiru has never questioned his place in the world. But he soon finds himself wrapped in a terrible conspiracy that threatens to upend everything he’s ever believed in, and may turn him into that which he has always despised.

It’s a really neat idea, with some very powerful characters and a well-built world. Clearly, Jemesin holds this world clearly in her mind when she writes, because the detail she gives, down to the smells and the surfaces, paint a wonderful picture. That said, though, this book didn’t really come together for me until about two hundred pages in.

Or a Magic Eye picture. I hate those things. Stupid sailboat…

I’m not sure why that was. Maybe I’m so deeply mired in the Alternate Europe mode of fantasy fiction that my brain had trouble adjusting to the deliberately different world that Jemesin built. Maybe she knows the world so well that she made certain assumptions about it that the reader – or at least this reader – couldn’t readily put together. All I know is that I spent a good portion of the book trying to keep everything in order in my head. It was like doing one of those sliding-piece puzzles: immensely frustrating until you finally get a good idea of how it all works.

Before you despair, however, note that number again: 200 pages. You would think that if a book baffled me for a while, I would probably put it down, but the fact that I was willing to keep going that far through my bafflement really does say a lot about the work that Jemesin did. The characters are interesting, and their relationships are intense – none more so than that between Ehiru and his apprentice Nijiri. While Jemesin states clearly that the people of her world aren’t really concerned with labeling and compartmentalizing sexuality, Nijiri is definitely gay, and he is madly in love with his mentor, to the point where he is willing to give up his life to save him.

The Prince is another good example of an interesting and complicated character. The Sunset Prince, avatar of Hananja, gives off Bad Guy Vibes from the moment we meet him. There’s something about him as soon as he appears on the page that says he’s going to be trouble by the end of the book. Despite that, you can kind of see where he’s coming from, and you see the logic he’s working from. It’s deranged, yes, but in a very specific sort of way it makes sense.

Another fascinating aspect of this book is that it presents contrasting and incompatible cultural values with a sense of honesty and truth. The formalized execution/euthanasia that the Gatherers of Gujaareh perform is considered by their own people to be the best way to handle things. After all, why suffer in agony when Ehiru can come along and drop you into a pleasant dream for all eternity?

Not unlike the Cola Wars, but with less moral ambiguity… (photo by caycowa on DeviantArt)

On the other hand, Sunandi Jeh Kalawe is of the Kisuati, and they view the Gatherer’s narcomancy as a horrible power and their “gifts” as nothing short of institutionalized murder. The characters argue over this repeatedly in the book, and the best that comes of it is a certain mutual understanding. Not an agreement, mind you – neither viewpoint is either affirmed or torn down, but they eventually get to a point where they can start to see through the other’s eyes.

So as I said, it took about 200 pages for things to really click for me, but it was worth it when they did. Also, there’s a very funny author interview at the end where Jemesin is given the rare opportunity to interview herself. Definitely not to be missed. This is a really interesting world built on unique and fantastic concepts. There are more, too, which I’ll be looking forward to reading at some point in the future.

—————–
“You kill, priest. You do it for mercy and a whole host of other reasons that you claim are good, but at the heart of it you sneak into people’s homes in the dead of night and kill them in their sleep. This is why we think you strange – you do this and you see nothing wrong with it.
– Sunandi, The Killing Moon

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Review 189: Men at Arms

Men at Arms by Terry Pratchett

When last we left our intrepid Ankh-Morpork Night Watch, things were looking up. This is a nice change from the gutter’s-eye-view we had at the beginning of Guards! Guards!. Things have changed in the time between books. The Watch has a new headquarters, much nicer than its old one, thanks to Lady Sibyl Ramkin, the fiance of Captain Sam Vimes. She comes from an ancient and respectable family, has more money than anyone else in the city, and loves Vimes despite his deep-seated curmudgeonliness, if that is a word.

What’s more, the Watch is taking on new recruits, as ordered by the Patrician. Ankh-Morpork is a city with a very diverse population, and the Patrician believes that the Watch should reflect that diversity. Now we have a Watch open to anyone – trolls, dwarfs, the undead, apes, women – who wants to join, or who doesn’t want to get their heads beaten in. Carrot Ironfoundersson has become a beloved figure in the city – he knows everyone and everyone knows him. All in all, things are looking up.

But there are those who are of a mind that things would be better if only Ankh-Morpork had a king….

Of course, some kings only make things nightmarishly worse…

This is a recurring theme in the early Watch books – the irrational need for royalty. Although, that’s not entirely accurate. Pratchett is a British writer, of course, and he’s got the Queen to look up to, but she doesn’t have all that much real power. Certain people in Ankh-Morpork are looking for a sovereign – not to wave at them and make a Hogswatch speech, but to actually take over their city. They hope, in their hearts, that a king will solve everything. In that way, this recurring theme is not so much about royalty versus populism, but rather the ability to control one’s own life versus allowing someone else to control it for you. The idea that one has responsibility for one’s own actions and well-being is dominant in the Guards books, no more so than in this one.

There is a man named Edward d’Eath, and he has a vision. He is the last of an aristocratic line whose power has declined in this age of guilds and merchants. He looks to the past and sees it as better, brighter than the future. He knows that, if he can just do one little thing, Ankh-Morpork – and he – will be restored to glory. That one little thing, of course, is to put a king on the throne.

Not just any king, of course. The fools who thought to use a dragon to set up a puppet king showed how ineffectual that would be. No, this would only work with a real king, a descendant of the ancient kings of Ankh-Morpork. Find him, put him on the throne, and everything will finally be set straight.

I like to imagine it looks like this.

Of course, that doesn’t work out nearly as well as Edward hopes. He steals a mysterious artifact to set his plan in motion – the Gonne. It is a weapon created by one of the most brilliant minds on the Disc, a man kept peacefully imprisoned by Ankh-Morpork’s Patrician. It is a device that should have been destroyed, but was instead put on display so that the Assassins, the bringers of death, could look at it and say “Beware this thing.”

Like I said, this book is all about making choices in life. Vimes is engaged to be married to Sybil Ramkin, and thus his days as the Captain of the Watch are numbered. He may be in a better position than he was in the last book – having someone try to kill you is always refreshing, after all – but he knows that the life he’s giving up, with all of its pain and trouble and heartache, is the life that he needs to live.

Corporal Carrot needs to choose how best to serve the city of Ankh-Morpork. He is an excellent policeman, probably the only man on the Disc who could get in the middle of an incipient troll/dwarf race riot and shame them out of killing each other. People do what he says – he is, in his own words, “good at being obeyed.” If he wanted to, he could run the city and the city would be glad to let him do it. But is that the best thing for the city?

How could you not trust a chin like that? (art by Simon Lissaman)

The troll Detritus and the dwarf Cuddy both have choices – will they conform to the ancient animosity that stands between their two races, or will they overcome it for the common good?

And then there’s the Gonne itself. As a weapon, it is frighteningly powerful – much more so than the standard-issue crossbow – and as a firearm, however primitive, it represents a vast escalation in the way violence is done. What’s more, since this is a fantasy novel, the Gonne has something of a mind of its own. Its wielders hear it talking to them, convincing them that the only thing standing between them and what they want are a few simple deaths – something the Gonne can easily provide. It even uses the old NRA saw verbatim – Gonnes don’t kill people. People kill people.

But people have a choice, perhaps more of a choice than the characters of these books do. The Gonne controls them, the trigger practically pulls itself, and when you’re holding it, you can easily understand how a simple shot, one simple thing, could change the world. For the better, of course – always for the better.

Pratchett’s views on guns and their efficacy aside, it’s a very gripping book. There’s the mystery of it, of course – who has the Gonne, and why are they using it – but it’s also a story about characters and the choices they make for themselves. My absolute favorites in this are Detritus and Cuddy. Trolls and dwarfs have a famous antagonism, stretching back to the ancient battle of Koom Valley (the only battle in the multiverse where both sides ambushed each other) and it would be very easy for them to fall into simple, culturally conditioned roles.

They’re better buddy cops than you’ll likely to see in the movies, anyway.

While it may be a cliche to say that they found common ground, learned to look past their own prejudices and learned to respect – nay, to like one another, that’s exactly what they did. It is due to Pratchett’s skill as a writer and as a creator of characters that we come to deeply care for this relationship, investing a lot of hope in it. We know that if Cuddy and Detritus can become friends, then maybe there’s hope for everyone. This emotional investment pays off, and Pratchett reaches deep into our hearts at the end, showing that just because you start with a cliche, it doesn’t mean it can’t have depth.

Of course, if you’re not quite as analytical as I am, you can still enjoy it as a good murder mystery. Watching Vimes and company piece together the crime is always fun, because there’s always a twist somewhere that you never saw coming. And Vimes really is one of my favorite Discworld characters – he’s cynical and world-weary, but he still has enough idealism within him to carry him through those times that look like they’re trying to kill him.

All in all, a great book and one that’s highly recommended. The earlier Discworld books are largely stand-alone, so if you’ve never read any of the series before, don’t worry – you can pick this one up and you won’t really miss anything. You may, however, find yourself driving back to the bookstore to get as many other Discworld books as you can. I’m just saying….

—————————————————
Generally, I meet people before they’re buried. The ones I meet after they’ve been buried tend to be a bit over-excited and disinclined to discuss things.
– Death, Men at Arms
—————————————————

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Review 171: Blood Meridian

Blood Meridian or the Evening Redness in the West by Cormac McCarthy

As I was reading this book, a student saw me reading it and asked what it was about, I had to think for a few moments before answering.

“It’s about terrible people in a terrible place, doing terrible things to each other,” I said. And that really does just about sum it up.

The story that McCarthy tells is a complete destruction of the mythology of the Old West that Americans had come to know and love over the years. Some of the more modern Western films had begun to explore this territory when the book was published in 1985 – many of Clint Eastwood’s films spring to mind – creating a West where the “hero” is just the least bad person in the film. Even then, though, there are still undercurrents of the nobility of the cowboy, out to tame a savage land for the good of a civilization that will no longer need him when it’s done.

Next to these bounty hunters, Boba Fett is practically Gandhi.

This book features characters who are violent and vicious, thieves and murderers who will stop at nothing to get what they want. It starts with the nameless Kid, a young man who joins a group of bounty hunters riding the US-Mexico border in the years before the Civil War. They’re ostensibly looking for Apaches, bringing back scalps for gold, but they’re not especially picky. Any black head of hair ripped from the head of its owner will do, and if that means ravaging some small Mexican villages, then so be it.

The bounty hunters are led by Judge Holden, a man who gladly takes his place as the antithesis of everything that was supposed to be right and good about the old west. In both form and philosophy, Holden is barely human, and he only becomes less human as the book goes on. Insofar as the book has an antagonist, it is he.

He contrasts greatly to our ostensible protagonist, The Kid, in many ways. For one, the Judge has a name. For another, the Kid routinely disappears from the story for pages at a time, only to reappear to get to the next stage of the story. It’s actually very easy to forget that the Kid is in the book, until you see him again and think, “Oh yeah. Him.”

The Judge, on the other hand, is impossible to miss. He holds court out in the wilderness and expounds upon his philosophy of the world. He is huge and pale and clean, standing out amongst the filthy and starving band of killers that he’s assembled. Whenever he’s off-stage, you find yourself wondering when he’s going to show up again, and how much worse things will get when he does.

Kind of like this, only worse. Much, much worse.

Another image that McCarthy decides to destroy is that of the Native Americans as being honorable heroes, out to save their land from white invaders. Just as the cowboys of old were not all knights on horseback, the natives of old were not all noble savages who resorted to violence only as a last resort. The Apaches – and other native Americans in this book – are just as violent and bloodthirsty as their American and Mexican counterparts. Everyone, regardless of background, ultimately resorts to violence and savagery, throwing aside all morality in the name of either profit or survival, or simply the demonic glee of seeing things destroyed. No one comes out of this book looking good or ultimately redeemed. All are villains.

All of this made it something of a tough read for me. Not because of the scenes of horrifying violence – I can deal just fine with those – but because there was no one I wanted to like. I mean, I was fascinated by The Judge, but with that same kind of fascination that made me watch tsunami videos or that made people visit Ground Zero in New York City. It’s horror on a scale that we hope never to experience in our own lives, but we can’t look away.

Without someone to like, it was hard to care, and when it’s hard to care about a book, I find reasons not to read it. The writing was amazing, don’t get me wrong. McCarthy’s use of language was a joy to read, even if his refusal to use quotation marks got me a little annoyed from time to time, and I sometimes found myself reading passages out loud in the voice of Sam Elliott. In describing the landscapes of the West, McCarthy turns nature itself into a character, one that is every bit as violent, dangerous and hateful as the humans traversing it.

In addition, he does a very good job with the pacing of the book. The narration tends to grow as the book goes on, with sentences becoming longer and more elaborate as they unspool across the page, some taking a page or two to themselves, only to be stopped short by a single line or a rapid exchange. It’s hypnotic in places, and something I wish I knew how to do half as well.

All that aside, though, the only thing that really kept me going – other than the writing – was morbid curiosity. That, and the hope that I would figure out what McCarthy was trying to say in the book. What it all means.

So true, so true...

And that, friends and neighbors, is one of the pitfalls of being an English teacher. Always looking for meaning in things, for the bigger picture, the author’s Big Message to his readers. And as far as I can tell, McCarthy’s message is that man is a savage, terrifying animal, capable of cruelties that the average book-buying person cannot even begin to contemplate. The horrors that are depicted here are so brutally displayed and so viscerally described that we eventually become numb to them – which is a new horror by itself. There are things depicted in this story which should evoke nothing less than absolute moral condemnation, a rejection that such things should be possible to contemplate, much less carry out.

So when you find yourself glossing over these horrors as though they were mundane, it’s jarring. As you read, you want to keep a distance from the monsters populating the book, but isn’t ignoring their evils a kind of acceptance? And do you really want to be the kind of person who accepts these things? At the same time you’re trying to convince yourself that real people shouldn’t be capable of the acts you’re reading about, you end up accepting them.

Maybe that was what McCarthy wanted all along – for the readers to look at how we view violence and what our understanding of it really is. To force us to re-assess the limits of what we will tolerate and why. To make us look again at our heroes and villains and try to figure out exactly what the differences are, and whether we are really that far removed from them.

Or maybe McCarthy just really likes writing this kind of thing.

Either way, it’s a fascinating read, one that will linger with you long after you’ve finished the book.

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“In the days to come the frail black rebuses of blood in those sands would crack and break and drift away so that in the circuit of a few suns all trace of the destruction of these people would be erased. The desert wind would salt their ruins and there would be nothing, neither ghost nor scribe, to tell any pilgrim in his passing how it was that people had lived in this place and in this place died.”

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Review 151: Ghost Story

Ghost Story by Jim Butcher

Hell’s Bells count: 27

In the acknowledgment section of the book, where Butcher very kindly thanks all the people who helped it come into existence, he clarifies something very important: the end of the last book, Changes, was not a cliffhanger. Absolutely not, no matter that it really, really looked like one, smelled like one and felt like one. After all, in that last scene, Dresden is on a boat, and then shot through the chest by a sniper of some sort. He drops into the cold waters of the lake and sinks and, as far as we know, dies.

Noooo! You've gone too far, Harry!!

In order for it to be a cliffhanger, then, Butcher would have to reveal at the beginning of this book how Dresden got out of such a terrible situation. Maybe he could call on some last reserve of magic or be saved by merpeople or something, but the strictures of the cliffhanger would demand that Dresden, once the next book began, not be dead but saved by some unexpected, yet still believable, means.

So, yes, Butcher is right – it’s not a cliffhanger. Dresden is, indeed, dead. He did not escape, he was not rescued. He is dead.

Now in most series (comic books excluded, of course), the death of the main character would be something of an impediment to continuing the series. But The Dresden Files is not most series, and Harry Dresden is not most main characters. He has done too much and is far too important to be allowed to do a silly little thing like die. Harry Dresden is necessary to a great number of plans and schemes by a great number of people. What’s more, his death wasn’t exactly fair, insofar as such a thing is possible.

And so he is brought back by the Powers That Be in order to balance the scales and set things right, which is ultimately what Harry Dresden has been doing all along. He’s to go back to Chicago and find his murderer, lest terrible things happen to those he loves.

Fortunately, while there are meddling kids, Harry wins them over, and the giant ridiculous dog is on his side.

The catch, of course, is that he has to come back as a ghost. This is a problem for many reasons, not the least of which is that doing a murder investigation is substantially easier when you have, well, substance. It’s hard to punch someone in the face when your fists just go right through them. So Dresden first has to figure out how to make himself known to the living world, in addition to coming to grips with his limitations as an untethered spiritual entity. Once he’s figured that part out, he has to not only solve his own murder, but keep a body-hopping necromancer from becoming indescribably powerful, save the only man who knows how to deal with being a ghost, try to redeem a bunch of street kids who are under the influence of a minor sorcerer, and figure out what to do with the real mess he made when he died.

You see, Harry’s death, and the events that led up to it, created a power vacuum – not only in Chicago, but all over the world. With the destruction of the Red Court of vampires, the magical rulers of the world are fighting tooth and nail over land and resources, and what has mostly resulted from that is bloodshed. Forces all over the world are converging on Red Court territory, each one determined to claim what they can.

This was the very first Google Image result for "Ragged Lady." The book is forever changed for me...

In Chicago, the news of Harry Dresden’s death invited all sorts of new power players into the city, who were previously smart enough to stay out. Harry never truly understood the reputation he had until he sees what his friends have to do to match it and keep the city safe. Now that the Great and Powerful Harry Dresden is out of the picture, a newer and more terrible protector has emerged to keep away those who would do the city and its inhabitants harm. The Ragged Lady is all that stands in the way of the Chicago that Harry knew being overrun.

Mix in the Faerie, a new group called the Formor, the mob, and a few representatives of the afterlife, and you have a confusing and volatile situation. Which is pretty much where Harry Dresden is most at home.

As with the other Dresden Files books, this is a lot of fun to read, mainly because it looks at Harry and his friends from a new point of view – the outside. In the six months that he’s been “away,” the people he loves have had to go on without him, and even in that short time they have become different. They have had to make choices that they wouldn’t have made while he was there, and they certainly don’t interact with him the same way they once did. Harry has to re-learn who these people are, with the understanding that his decisions did not change their lives for the better.

Then again, showy violence can be pretty cool sometimes. (Art by Dan Dos Santos)

In addition, we learn more about Harry’s past and what made him the way he is, and we finally see him start to think about whether being the person he is is really a good thing all the time. He excels in showy violence, hitting first and asking questions later, without taking a more nuanced view of the situation. Well, now he can’t hit, at least not in the ways that he’s used to. He has to look at his old ways in a new light and figure out how to get what he wants through other means.

Really, if you’ve read this far in the series, you’ll enjoy this one. Butcher continues to do a good job in giving us what we want, while at the same time showing us things that are truly unexpected. There are some wonderful moments in the book, a few exposition-heavy moments while Harry is filled in on the situation, and a good mystery to be solved. Enjoy.

——

Death should be a learning experience, after all, or what’s the point?
– Leanansidhe, Ghost Story

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Review 149: Speaker for the Dead

Speaker for the Dead
by Orson Scott Card

In his introduction to the book, Card says that the main reason he wrote his most famous book – Ender’s Game – was so that he would one day be able to write this. I think this is something that probably happens a lot to authors. They get a Big Idea in their head, something with great depth and complexity and meaning, and quickly discover that they don’t actually know what they’re writing about yet. There’s too much to say, there’s too much that even the author doesn’t know yet, and to go forward from that state of ignorance will result in what is, ultimately, an inferior narrative.

Andrew Wiggin, the Speaker for the Dead, comes to the human colony Lusitania in order to speak the death of a local man, Marcão. While given the same reverence and privileges as priests, Speakers are not the same. Their job is to learn about the dead, to understand who they were and who they wanted to be, and then tell the truth as plainly and as clearly as possible. They do not give eulogies, where they try to paint the dead in as good a light as possible. They reveal who this person was, and in the process try to help those left behind understand them. It’s a calling that requires an insightful mind, great empathy for others, and the ability to tell the truth despite how hard that truth may be to hear.

As a Speaker for the Dead, Andrew Wiggin is very good at his job. It was he who was the first Speaker, who wrote a text that is as revered as the Bible – The Hive Queen and the Hegemon – in order to understand how humankind could kill the only other intelligent species it had ever encountered. The book reveals who the Buggers were and why they attacked humanity. It tells how their understanding of what it means to be intelligent led to a century of warfare and, ultimately, their own destruction. The book also reveals humanity, the dreams and fears that it faced when it met the Buggers. And it tries to understand why humans were so afraid that they took one of their own – a little boy named Ender – and turned him into the greatest monster in human history. The Xenocide. The one who destroyed an entire alien race.

This book changed the way humankind saw the universe, and themselves. With the Buggers gone, but their technology still available, humans expanded out to a hundred worlds. Though their starships could only go just under the speed of light, the ansible provided instant communication between the stars. It formed a communications network that held the Starways Congress together and allowed humanity to become a multi-system species.

Ender – Andrew – is ultimately responsible for all of this, and is therefore the linchpin of this entire universe. In order to write this book, to understand the culture and the history and the politics that would be necessary to write Speaker for the Dead, Card first had to understand who Ender was. So, with the blessing of his publishers, he was able to turn Ender’s Game into a full-length novel. Once that was done, he was able to turn back to this book and craft it into what it has become.

Question: Will the aliens wear hats that are sillier than ours? No? Good.

The colony of Lusitania is a small place, a group of Catholic settlers who live in a small and insular town. They have all the troubles that any new world would have, except for two that make it truly unique. The first is the descolada, a virus that nearly destroyed the colony and, thousands of years before, life on the planet. This illness literally unzips and recombines your DNA, ravaging your body utterly. If not for the dying work of the colony’s two great xenobiologists, everyone would have died. As it turned out, Gusto and Cida were the last to die, leaving their sad, strange daughter Novinha behind.

Even that wouldn’t be enough to make Lusitania a truly remarkable place. No, for that, we must introduce the Piggies – the third intelligent life form known to exist in the universe. They’re small, look like little pig-men, and are indisputably intelligent. They learn quickly, even despite the law forbidding xenologists from influencing their development, and present humanity with an important chance: the last time we encountered an alien intelligence, we obliterated it. Let’s not do that again.

This becomes harder, however, when the Piggies kill two of the xenologists in what appear to be a horrifyingly painful method. Now it looks like humanity may have to revert to type again, and that there truly is no way that humans can share the same space with other intelligences.

Into all this steps Ender. His years of lightspeed travel have kept him young while three thousand years have passed, and he has wandered from world to world to speak for the dead. Now he is on Lusitania to speak for Marcão, an investigation that will lead him to uncover secrets kept for decades, and to once again change the way humans understand their universe.

There’s really so much to say about this book that it’s hard to decide what to leave out and what to keep in. For one thing, Card is trying to write a very different kind of science fiction story. In his introduction, he says that a lot of fiction is adolescent in nature, science fiction especially. It’s about adventure, about people seeing a way out of their conventional lives and going off alone. It’s about being freed from responsibility and living a fast and crazy life. When that loneliness of adventure finally becomes too much, the hero settles down, but that’s usually the last chapter of the book, if ever.

Isolation. Not just for murderous adolescent geniuses.

Card wanted to go the opposite way, to take a lonely adventurer and show him trying desperately to become responsible, to become a member of a community. In class, where I’m teaching Ender’s Game, we’ve identified isolation as being one of the overriding themes of the novel. Ender is constantly taken away from those he loves or held apart from others. In the end, he becomes a solo wanderer. Even more than that, he is made into a monster, a name on par with Lucifer itself. He is virtually thrown out of humanity, and it is only because no one knows who he really is that he can travel unmolested.

So we’re seeing Ender in that stage where the loneliness and the wandering have become an unbearable burden to him, and all he wants is a place to belong. But as a Speaker, as a man speaking a death that could completely upend the lives of everyone in the colony, he has his work cut out for him.

There is also the element of redemption. In his years of travel, Ender has carried a very special package with him – the cocoon of the last Bugger hive queen. In exchange for her story, he promised that he would find a home for her, a place for her to rebuild her vast family. And on Lusitania, there is that chance. But first he has to save the Piggies, to prevent them from suffering the fate of the Buggers at the hand of a fearful and suspicious Humanity. If Ender can do this, perhaps he can make up for the horror that he unknowingly perpetrated.

There’s a lot going on in this book, to say the least. It’s a great book, better in many ways than Ender’s Game. It is more complex and adult and difficult, with moments of true emotion, a well-built socio-political system befitting a species that spans hundreds of worlds, and addressing the needs for changes in culture, politics and even language that would arise from the need to define relationships between worlds and between species.

Ender would have been a natural for the Indigo Tribe. You listening, Geoff Johns?

Fundamentally, though, this book is about what the Speaker for the Dead does best – understanding. It’s about how we deal with The Other, even when that Other is completely alien to us. Humans and Buggers, Humans and Piggies – hell, Humans and Humans, we have a hard time understanding people who are not like us. We find it very difficult to look at the world from their point of view and to see the world through their eyes. Understanding what they love and fear, what they value and honor, or what they abhor – and more importantly, understanding what they see in you and how they understand you – is the best and surest road to making peace with those who are different from yourself. And that’s a lesson that is valuable for all of us.

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“No human being, when you understand his desires, is worthless. No one’s life is nothing. Even the most evil of men and women, if you understand their hearts, had some generous act that redeems them, at least a little, from their sins.”
– Ender Wiggin, Speaker for the Dead

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Review 140: The Shining

The Shining by Stephen King

I’m going to have pick on Jack Nicholson here, but I’m pretty sure he can take it. If I get an angry email from him, I’ll let you know. I’m also going to take a couple of shots at Staley Kubrick, who is dead and can’t defend himself, although I can probably count on some of his loyal followers doing so in his stead. Basically my goal in writing this review is to encourage you to completely ignore the film version of The Shining and appreciate the book.

Thankfully, the original line - "DY-NO-MITE!" - was cut.

To be fair, though, the film and the book really are two different beasts. They share a basic story line, yes, and some characters, but they’re looking at the story from different points of view. The film did create some iconic moments – Danny running his bigwheel down the hallway, the elevator vomiting blood, and “Heeeeere’s JOHNNY!” which isn’t outdated at all, of course. Note to filmmakers, no matter how brilliant you think you are: pop culture references have a short shelf life. Avoid them. But I think that Kubrick’s film kind of misses the point, which disappointed me greatly.

Anyway, this isn’t a movie review. So let’s shut up about that for a while, shall we?

The book is one of King’s earliest, written in 1977, and like so many of his early works it’s one of his best. It’s a tale of a hotel that’s more than just haunted – it’s possessed. It’s a place that has been a witness to all kinds of evil, inhumanity, and malice, and the spirits that inhabit it are always looking for company. So allow me to present Jack Torrance. A once-promising writer, former teacher, and an alcoholic, Jack is man whose life is on the edge of collapsing. After being fired for beating the daylights out of one of his students, the job as caretaker for the Overlook Hotel is, as far as he’s concerned, the only thing keeping him and his family from complete destitution and shame.

And let’s be clear about this right up front – Jack loves his family. He loves his wife, Wendy, even if she does get under his skin from time to time, and he is utterly devoted to their son, Danny. He knows that his own upbringing, with an abusive, alcoholic father, didn’t prepare him to be a good head of household. He knows that his own drinking problems led to the breaking of his son’s arm, an incident which very nearly destroyed his marriage. He also knows – or at least believes – that he can change. That’s why he took the job at the Overlook, in order to have some time to reset. Spend sober time with the family, finish the play he’s been working on – take a breather and get ready to rebuild their lives.

See? A cozy, family-friendly place.

The Overlook is one of the premiere hotels in Colorado. It’s a place that just exudes luxury, with a history stretching back to the early 1900s and everything a person vacationing in the Rockies could want. But because it’s perched in the mountains, it has to close down for the winter. No sane person would drive up there when the snow really got started, and so the need arose for a live-in caretaker to make sure the place doesn’t succumb to the elements. It’s a lonely and perilous job, miles away from help and civilization, but the right kind of person can probably do it.

Jack might have been able to manage, if the hotel weren’t the vessel for some evil, malevolent entity that thrived on the horrible things that men do to each other. For lack of a better phrase, the hotel is psychically charged – memories permeate it, making it haunted on nearly every level. Normal people can’t perceive this – they might feel uneasy in a certain room, or hear some strange sounds at night, but if you’re a garden-variety person, you won’t notice a thing.

Any kid who talks to his own finger has gotta be watched.

Five year-old Danny Torrance is not a normal person. He has the Shine, as it is called – a psychic ability of great and wondrous strength. He can read his parents’ emotions, he can predict the future and see the past. While his power isn’t fully under his control, he knows that he’s not like other children. His is a unique mind, and it is this power, this shine, that both dooms and saves him. (As a note to Dark Tower fans – don’t you think Danny would have made a great Breaker? I wish King had hit on that….)

The hotel knows it too. It wants to use Danny to power itself, to perpetuate its evil. But it can’t get to Danny – so it gets to Jack. It preys on his weaknesses (and Jack Torrance has oh so many weaknesses) and uses him as a tool to destroy his own family.

Truly this is a creepy book. The descriptions are careful and evocative, and when King wants you to be scared, you can be damn sure that you’ll be scared. It’s cabin fever in book form, and the longer you read it, the more you can feel the hotel pressing in on you from the pages. It’s a terrible, terrible tragedy, the slow destruction of what could have been a good and happy family, had they not come to this place. To be fair, Jack Torrance was not a very good human being to begin with, and the odds are good that he would have ruined his family eventually. Under the roof of the Overlook, though, he never even had a chance. As you read, you realize that while it’s hard to like Jack, you can certainly understand him.

Ladies and Gentlemen - Shelley Duvall!

And that’s why I like the book better than the movie. The film makes Jack the villain. It makes him into a guy who snaps under the pressure of not drinking, not being able to write and having a wife played by Shelley Duvall, who could have been replaced with Munch’s “The Scream” on a stick to as much effect. In the end, it’s Jack who betrays his family, Jack who tries to murder his wife and son, and Jack who dies frozen in the hedge maze.

The thing is, that’s not how King wrote it. While Jack certainly isn’t redeemed by the end of the book, it is clear that the person who was chasing Danny through the halls with a roque mallet, the person who nearly bludgeoned Wendy and Hallorann to death was not Jack Torrance. He may have looked like him, but what was doing all the evil was the thing that had defeated Jack – it was the thing that had killed him. And I think that story, about a man who was just not strong enough to resist a far greater power, is more interesting than a story about a guy who just goes nuts. Jack’s character in the book is far more nuanced and deep than I thought he was in the film, and it saddened me to see him pressed into two dimensions. And again, I think Jack Nicholson – while perhaps adequate for the role as Kubrick saw it, was not the Jack Torrance that I saw in this book.

As an aside, I thought the TV miniseries was much closer to the book and, thusly, better. True, it lacked a lot of Kubrick’s more famous directorial panache, but since a) Kubrick ruined the movie and b) I’m not a big fan of his anyway, I didn’t hold that against ABC.

Jack is not that far from Homer Simpson, really....

The book wasn’t written, I think, with a lot of Deeper Meaning in mind. I’m sure King would be the first to admit that. It’s a kind of psychological study of how to turn a weak person into a bad person, and how much pushing it would require to make a man turn to evil. It looks at the bad choices we make, and how we fool ourselves into making them. Jack Torrance is a cautionary tale against self-pity and self-delusion. Jack views himself as a perpetual victim, held back by his upbringing, his wife, his alcoholism – nothing that goes wrong in his life is actually his fault (according to Jack). Had he taken responsibility for his actions and his errors, he might have withstood the Overlook’s attacks.

The big question for this book is this: was any other outcome possible? Did the Torrance family have any choice in what happened to them, or were they doomed from the moment they set foot in the hotel? I vote for the latter. While they certainly had their chances – many chances – to get out and escape the horrible future that was bearing down on them, it was clear that was never going to happen. Jack was a man who was far too weak, too selfish and too self-absorbed to let himself leave the Overlook. And so they were doomed. The fact that anyone got out of there at all was a miracle.

This is part of the Stephen King Required Reading set – if you’re going to read any King at all, you need to read this one. It’s a horror book that’ll stay with you for a long, long time.

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“The boiler’s okay and I haven’t even gotten around to murdering my wife yet. I’m saving that until after the holidays, when things get dull.”
– Jack Torrance, The Shining
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Stephen King on Wikipedia
The Shining on Wikipedia
The Shining on Amazon.com
Stephen King’s homepage

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Filed under children, death, family, fathers, fear, horror, made into movies, madness, murder, sons, Stephen King, wives