Gamification and C-Monkeys: Corporate Double-Talk

Gamification and C-MonkeysGamification and C-Monkeys by Keith Hollihan

Published: October 22nd 2013
Publisher: ChiZine Publications
Genre(s): Thriller, Science Fiction
Format: eBook
Length: 280 pages

Gamification and C-Monkeys are a pair of related novellas sold together as a “flip book” with a different cover on each side. The effect is clearly meant as a call-back to days when publishers sold slim, pulpy novels in bound pairs, and although both stories include familiar beats, Hollihan leavens each with modern ecological concerns and stylistic touches.

I decided to start reading these novellas thanks to a highly scientific method that involved skimming the first page of every review copy I have in my possession until I found one that hooked me enough to keep reading.

Gamification, a thriller about corporate espionage, offered just the right combination of spare prose and business jargon. I was soon caught up in the plight of the main character, a former corporate executive and current ex-con recently released from prison and struggling to make ends meet. When he begins working under-the-table for his old company cleaning up after the CEO’s ill-advised affair with a woman at a rival company, things start to get hairy.

Hollihan definitely knows his jargon. I’m pretty sure that if you turn this book sideways, a few inter-office memos and a quarterly report might fall out. He also has a pretty solid grasp of thriller conventions and pacing; the book starts out slow but steady until things inevitably begin escalating and Hollihan pulls the rug out from under his main character.

It was exciting reading, and I definitely enjoyed the experience, but the end of the novella left several story threads unresolved or unexplained, and I was admittedly a bit confused about who did what to whom and why. It felt a bit like Hollihan ignored motivations and explanations  in the name of surprise and excitement. It worked in the moment, but ultimately left me unsatisfied.

I assumed that C-Monkeys might shed some light on the parts of Gamification that remained unexplained, but I was sadly disappointed. At one point in Gamification, the main character is given a pulpy dime-store novel about a mad scientist on a mysterious island full of giant salamanders. C-Monkeys is essentially the expanded version of that novel’s summary.

Unfortunately, in expanding the story, Hollihan doesn’t bring much more to the table. The main character in C-Monkeys is a cipher with no backstory and no clear motivations. We are eventually told a bit more about who he is and why he might want to sneak on the island, but it comes late in the story and feels like an arbitrary info-dump instead of a shocking revelation. Honestly, nothing about C-Monkeys felt particularly surprising or remarkable.

I wanted to like Gamification and C-Monkeys more than I did. Both novellas were eminently readable, and Hollihan gets a surprising amount of entertainment mileage out of corporate espionage and the particulars of drilling for oil, but Gamification’s many twists add up to a whole lot of nonsense and C-Monkeys just feels unnecessary. I might be up for reading more of Hollihan’s work, but I can’t recommend this pair of novellas.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Barnes and Noble | ChiZine Publications | Indiebound

The Incrementalists: Plight of the Immortal Micro-Managers

The IncrementalistsPublished: September 24th, 2013
Publisher: Audible Frontiers
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Fantasy, Romance
Format: Audiobook
Length: 8 hrs and 52 mins

The Incrementalists has a killer premise and a rave from John Scalzi on the cover, so I was understandably impatient to read it as soon as it came out. The book focuses on the members of a secret society that uses psychological manipulation to make small changes that hopefully have larger effects on the course of human history. This “meddling” is all in the name of making the world a “better than good” place. These Incrementalists, as they call themselves, have the benefit of several millennia of stored memories and history guiding them in their work. In fact, a large part of what makes their group work so well are the methods they use to pass down memories and maintain continuity over time.

All Incrementalists have a shared mental space they refer to as “The Garden”, where every member has an imaginary home of their own, used to store or “seed” memories, data and the psychological triggers required for mental manipulations. This combined with their ability to pass on memories and personalities from dead to new members makes them a formidable force when necessary. However, subtlety is the watchword for Incrementalists, and ethical considerations are always an important driver for every choice they make. Brust and White pepper in this world-building throughout, and although it does occasionally get a bit metaphysical, it’s easily the most interesting part of the book.

However, the meat of the story focuses on two Incrementalists in particular, Phil and Ren. Phil is the oldest continuous Incrementalist. Becoming an Incrementalist means being implanted with the memories and personality or “stub” of a deceased former member. When this happens, the two personalities vie for dominance. In Phil’s case, his personality has come out on top for longer than any other member of the group, which gives him seniority without necessarily making him infallible. Ren is a new recruit that Phil brings into the fold to replace the late Celeste, Phil’s tempestuous sometimes partner and former lover.

Ren is wide-eyed and ambitious, and surprisingly eager to join a strange cabal of semi-immortal meddlers, so it isn’t long before the recruitment process finishes and Ren finds herself implanted with Celeste’s stub. Naturally, that is when the shit hits the fan. Somehow the process doesn’t go through correctly, and instead of coming out the other end with all of Celeste’s history at her command, Ren has a hard time remembering who the hell this Celeste is everyone keeps ranting about. When the other Incrementalists start looking into the problem, they discover hidden sabotage and go into full-on panic mode. Accusations, manipulation, and attempted murder all come into play, and the group finds itself at a loss for the solution.

However, this is where the premise began unraveling for me. When I picked up the book, I had certain expectations that I’d be reading about a society of people spending their time manipulating the world around them. In practice, however, it turns out that most of the meddling involves nothing more than convincing Ren’s boss to put off a conference call so that she can stay focused on Incrementalist matters. Ren does meddle with a cocktail waitress at one point, but it doesn’t amount to anything of note. Other than that, the Incrementalists spend most of  their time dealing with a storyline that feels like nothing so much as metaphysical office politics. It’s a bit hard to care about a possibly corrupt secret society that does little more than manipulate its own members.

Then, of course, there’s the romance storyline. Shortly after Phil and Ren meet, they are in love. Part of it is the latent memory of Celeste influencing them both, but that doesn’t excuse the fact that it feels like the characters go from strangers to passionate lovers in no time flat. It doesn’t help that I never really got much of a sense of either character as a person; they both felt a bit underdeveloped. Instead of feeling like a release or a rush of emotion, the romance scenes played more like passion by default.

Ultimately, although I found the premise intriguing, the plot wasn’t all that compelling. It is possible that my audiobook listening habits were part of the problem, however. I just haven’t been making time for audiobooks recently, so I listened in fits and starts over the course of a month. On the other hand, if the book had grabbed me, I’m sure I would have made more time to listen.

One more note for audiobook listeners: Ray Porter and Mary Robinette Kowal are both wonderful, talented narrators, but for some reason they use different accents for the same characters. A head-scratching choice and particularly confusing when the narrators switch in the middle of a scene.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Amazon | Audible | Indiebound

Crucial Listens: The Best Audiobook Experiences

I’ve had an Audible membership for a few years now, and although I’d enjoyed audiobooks before I started my membership, it wasn’t until I started listening regularly and widely to audiobooks that I began to understand how much difference a great audio production can make when it comes to reading. I’d argue that some books only truly come alive when you hear them read aloud; humor comes across more clearly, characters become more vivid, and good books transform into great ones.

The Blade Itself audiobook, read by Steven PaceyThe First Law Trilogy by Joe Abercrombie, read by Steven Pacey

The Blade Itself was one of the first books I picked up with a credit, and Steven Pacey’s performance blew me away. Like many epic fantasy series, The First Law has a huge cast of characters, and Pacey accomplishes the rare feat of giving each character a unique voice and accent that makes them immediately stand out. After a certain point, Abercrombie could have forgone character identification and I would always have known which character was speaking. It also helps that the series is bloody, subversive and thoroughly entertaining.

Redshirts audiobook, read by Wil WheatonRedshirts by John Scalzi, read by Wil Wheaton

If you’re going to tell a metafictional story about a starship crew that realizes they’re actually characters on a terrible sci-fi TV show, you really can’t pick anyone else to read it but Wil Wheaton. Luckily Wheaton isn’t just a former sci-fi TV star, he’s also an excellent narrator with a flair for reading comic novels like this and Ready Player One by Ernest Cline. Wheaton doesn’t do too much with character voices, but he understands the emotional core of this and other books I’ve heard him read, and I’d easily pick up any new book read by him on that criteria alone.

Bandits audiobook, read by Frank MullerBandits by Elmore Leonard, read by Frank Muller

I picked Bandits because it’s one of my favorite books by Leonard, but really anything read by Muller is worth picking up. He’s the perfect narrator for Leonard’s casts of characters on both sides of the law (but usually the wrong one). Muller growls and drawls with the best of them, giving Leonard’s minimalist prose the exact right amounts of menace and wry humor. I recently went on a Leonard listening spree, and Muller immediately became one of my favorite narrators.

Middlemarch audiobook, read by Kate ReadingMiddlemarch by George Elliot, read by Kate Reading

Middlemarch is a massive tome about life in a small British town at the turn of the century. One of the main characters, Dorothea, is a pious woman who enters into a loveless marriage with a shriveled old academic named Casaubon. It might seem intimidating and potentially dry, but it’s actually gently satirical, occasionally laugh-out-loud funny and wonderfully emotional. I feel like Reading’s arch delivery went a long way in aiding my comprehension and enjoyment of the book. Some of my favorite parts are her readings of Casaubon’s meandering writings. Until I listened to this audiobook, I would never have imagined that Middlemarch would become one of my all-time favorite books, but as soon as I finished, I wanted to listen to more classics.

Skippy Dies audiobook, read by a full castSkippy Dies by Paul Murray, read by a full cast

Most audiobooks have one or maybe two narrators, but Skippy Dies boasts almost a dozen men and women who play students, teachers and administrators at an Irish private school. The book is sprawling, and the huge cast of characters is well-served by the tag-team narration style. I couldn’t imagine reading this hilarious, sad story any other way.

The Night Circus audiobook, read by Jim DaleAnything read by Jim Dale

Best known for narrating the Harry Potter books and Pushing Daisies, Dale brings an impeccably British whimsy to everything he narrates. When I started my Harry Potter re-read, I decided to pick up the audio versions just so I could enjoy his narration. Dale’s narration is a perfect fit for anything with a bit of magic and humor in the mix.

Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell: Fan for Life

FangirlPublished: September 10th, 2013
Publisher: St. Martin’s Griffin
Genre(s): Young Adult, Coming of Age
Format: eBook
Length: 445 pages

Fangirl tells the story of twin sisters Cath and Wren from the start of their freshman year in college. Even though they are going to attend the same school, Wren unexpectedly decides not to room with Cath, throwing her sister for a loop. Wren, it seems, wants to break out and make a life of her own without her sister.

Wren is the outgoing one, easily fitting in at college and making new friends. Cath is painfully introverted, crippled with social anxiety that, among other things, drives her to eat protein bars in her room instead of going to the cafeteria because there are too many people and too many social pitfalls waiting for her there. Cath is too much in her own head, worrying about potential disasters and clinging to her only comfort zone – the world of Simon Snow fandom.

Cath, it seems, spends most of her free time writing Simon Snow fan fiction, but she’s not just any fan writer. In fact, she’s one of the most popular writers in the entire fandom, and she’s best known for her slash depicting a romantic relationship between Snow and his roommate/nemesis, Baz. Cath and Wren started out writing together, but as they got older, Wren stopped collaborating with her sister even as Cath’s star rose in the fan writer community. As the book opens, Cath is deep in the middle of writing her own alternate version of the upcoming eighth and final Simon Snow book.

Cath loves writing about Simon and Baz, loves writing so much that she signs up for a fiction writing class normally reserved for upperclassmen. Anyone who has ever attended a college fiction course can guess what kind of disaster is heading Cath’s way, so deep is she embedded in the world of fan fiction. That said, Fangirl is a thoroughly even-handed depiction of fan writing; Cath clearly writes her Simon Snow stories as an escape from the real world, but it’s also apparent that her prolificacy and storytelling skills only improve thanks to her constant remixing of the Simon Snow universe. Fangirl doesn’t condemn fan fiction, but does point to it as a stepping stone towards learning how to tell your own stories.

At its heart, though, Fangirl is a character study of a girl who I’m sure many socially awkward readers can recognize and identify with. As we slowly learn more about Cath’s relationship with her family members – her bipolar dad, her absentee mother, and her suddenly distant twin – she becomes a fuller and even more powerful character. At first her fears seemed outrageous even as I could imagine myself inside the same kind of toxic mindset; once I came to understand where Cath was coming from, however, the book packed a palpable emotional punch. Her coming of age over the course of her freshman year is both realistic and stirring.

I also loved Fangirl’s depiction of Cath’s burgeoning romantic relationship. The love scenes are tentative and believable, and felt so true to life. Cath’s growth as a person depends on her learning to open up and trust others after experiencing so much heartbreak at a young age. Where so many young adult novels seem to include romance by default, Fangirl makes the romantic storyline crucial to Cath’s development, and the difference is incredibly refreshing.

The highest compliment I can pay this book is that once I sat down and truly devoted myself to reading it, I didn’t stop until I had thoroughly blown past my bedtime by several hours. My sleep schedule is still recovering, but I don’t regret a minute. Rowell is definitely an author to watch.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Audible | Indiebound

On Progress Bars and Persistence

7_animated-gif-person-turning-page-black-book

I recently bought a Kindle Paperwhite after years of saying I probably wouldn’t replace my Kindle until it broke. The old one still works just fine, but I found myself with a sizable gift card balance burning a hole in my digital pocket thanks to a bonus from work, so I gave in to gadget lust and upgraded.

So far I love it. It appears Amazon has fixed the previous generation’s issues with backlighting, and I have to say that the reading light is indispensable. The contrast is so much better, and the page turns feel more responsive. I thought I’d miss the hardware page-turn buttons, but I’ve gotten used to swiping and/or tapping in no time at all. My favorite feature, though, is displaying your progress as the estimated time left in the chapter or the entire book.

As I’ve mentioned several times before, I’ve been ever-so-slowly reading Anna Karenina since late last year. Most of that time I only read a chapter or two when I picked it up, and generally felt like I wasn’t making any progress because the overall percent read never changed, and the version I have doesn’t support page numbers. The “location” numbers are essentially meaningless, so it was always pretty easy to get disheartened after reading for what felt like a long time.

However, I’ve managed to make a huge amount of progress in the last few days, and I would definitely chalk it up to the estimated time remaining feature. I’ve got it set to display the estimated time left in the book, and for whatever reason just seeing a reassuringly small amount of time remaining – around five and a half hours as of this writing – is all I need to keep pushing through and making progress.

It doesn’t matter whether the number is entirely accurate; I’m sure the Paperwhite is still getting used to my reading speed, although it was pretty close when I read most of Fangirl in one marathon session. All that really matters is that I can see myself making progress in a measure that makes sense to me. I think that measure of tangible progress is one thing I miss the most when I read a digital book. There’s nothing quite like holding the weight of a thousand pages in your left hand as you finally wrap up the tail end of a book in your right. For whatever reason, measuring my progress in time comes closer to that sensation than measuring progress with a percentage.

Ancillary Justice: I Am Beside Myself and Myself

Ancillary JusticePublished: October 1, 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction, Space Opera
Format: Paperback/eBook
Length: 410 pages

Ancillary Justice is science fiction crammed full to the brim with wild ideas. The main character, Breq, is an “ancillary soldier” cut off from her ship for almost twenty years, but she isn’t exactly human, at least not by the standards of her society, the Radch. The Radch, it seems, were aggressive about expansion over thousands of years. As part of that expansion they captured entire civilizations and turned the leftover bodies into these ancillaries – soldiers that shared a mind with their ships, that were effectively as much a part of their ships as any piece of the hull. Corpse soldiers, to quote a slang term.

Breq, who comes from a ship called the Justice of Toren, has spent the past twenty years tirelessly working towards revenge against Anaander Mianaai, Lord of the Radch, who shares one similarity with Breq and other ancillaries: she has thousands of bodies under her control. This, naturally, complicates Breq’s plan for revenge. In the current day scenes, Breq searches for an artifact that will help her carry out her plans while also caring for a petulant drug-addicted former solider who once served on her ship. These alternate with flashbacks to Breq’s time spent as an ancillary soldier on the last planet annexed by the Radch.

Leckie does a great job of slowly revealing more and more about Breq’s past and the nature of the tragedy that befell her ship. She also takes fairly simple building blocks and turns them into fascinating philosophical mind-benders. What, after all, does it mean for Breq’s I to mean the ship Justice of Toren but also all the hundreds of ancillary soldiers in her hold? The narrative is simultaneously first-person and omniscient, jumping from place to place as the ship’s many perspectives build to a greater whole.

Leckie also sets up the Radch society as one that does not distinguish between the genders when speaking. In practice, this means that everyone in the book is “she” regardless of gender. Further complicating matters for Breq is the fact that she has a hard time distinguishing gender traits when in other societies, and tends to use incorrectly gendered pronouns. At first I found this a bit confusing, but once I got used to it, I found myself not really worrying about the gender of characters. Leckie drops hints here and there as to the actual gender of certain characters, but in practice it doesn’t actually matter.

The scope of Ancillary Justice feels simultaneously personal and global; Breq’s actions are deeply rooted in events from her past, but the result of her fight against the Lord of the Radch could have far-reaching repercussions. The world-building is pitch-perfect, and never feels heavy-handed or overwhelming. As soon as I finished this book, I checked to see if Leckie has any plans to continue writing in this world, and she does – apparently this is the first book in a loose trilogy. That said, it feels like Breq’s quest is contained; the end does set up possible future stories, but I couldn’t begin to guess where else Leckie might take the world of the Radch. However, I find that exciting.

I think my favorite part of this book was the way that Leckie took so many truly alien elements and made them feel natural and believable. The characters are human, but a type of human thousands of years removed from our society, and changed in many strange ways. We don’t ever meet any non-human characters, but they lurk just at the edge of the story, menacing and dangerous.

I can’t wait for the next book in this series, and I’ll definitely be checking out Leckie’s short stories as soon as possible.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Indiebound

When is it time to give up on finishing a book?

pages fluttering

People who read for fun (or read at all) each have their own individual way of dealing with a book they can’t quite manage to finish. Some folks stubbornly insist on finishing every book they start, even if it’s a grueling death march towards an unsatisfying end. It’s possible I am biased against this methodology, because I tend to give up on books after a chapter or two if I’m not getting into them.

The problem is that there are occasionally books that I really want to finish for some reason, but I never want to have to force myself to read something. I feel like that’s against my personal reading for fun beliefs system, a religion I founded and observe by regularly updating my progress on Goodreads.

So, a quandary: what happens when I come across a book that I’d really like to finish, that I might even enjoy in short bursts, but that I just don’t find myself picking up to read? What if I manage to read a huge chunk of the book – more than the maximum fifty pages I give most books – but it’s still not clicking for me?

I try not to drop books when I’ve made it too far into them, but it has happened before. I made it 100 pages into Dan Wells’ Partials and just could not bring myself to care about what was happening. I’m pretty sure I read a good chunk of Cinder by Marissa Meyer before I gave it up as a lost cause.

The only books I’m more likely to force myself to finish are review copies, because someone was nice enough to give me a free book and I should repay the favor. Even still, if a review copy isn’t a quick read and I already know I don’t like it after a chapter or two, it’s probably best that I go ahead and skip writing about how much I hated it.

I’ve been known to put down books and try again later when I’m in the right mood. This happened three times with White Noise, which I eventually finished out of sheer stubbornness. Sometimes I’ll stop reading a book in print and try again later as an audiobook. This worked with Heist Society, which didn’t grab me when I first tried to read it but came alive thanks to an excellent narrator.

Right now, though, the book I’m thinking about most is Anna Karenina. I started reading that sucker in December of 2012, and somehow it’s nine months later and I’m only halfway through. I feel like I’ve invested way too much time in the book to give up on finishing it, but it’s also just taking so damn long to read! I keep imagining I’ll sit down for a marathon reading session and make some good progress, but every time I try, I make maybe 1% of progress and wander off to do something else. I’d like to finish the book before I die of old age, if possible.

Will I ever finish Anna Karenina? I think at this point I may have to throw myself a little party if I make it to the last page.

He’ll Clean Up This Planet: Version 43 by Philip Palmer

Version 43Published: October 28, 2010
Publisher: Orbit
Genre(s): Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Length: 560 pages

Version 43 is a weird book. If the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere are any indication, it’s the sort of book that inspires polarizing reactions.

It’s long at over 500 pages. It’s gory, vulgar and occasionally squick-inducing even though it isn’t at all dark or gritty. It has a weird structure; at several points in the narrative it seems like the book can go no further, surely a climax or resolution is coming soon, and then Palmer tops himself yet again. That said, it isn’t at all exhausting, and I certainly didn’t feel like it wore out its welcome. I read it in a few marathon sessions, and although I wasn’t sure what to think of it at first, it thoroughly won me over by the end.

Version 43 is a Galactic Cop and a cyborg. He was originally based on a human being, but he doesn’t know who he was before, and it has been centuries since he felt at all human. Every time he dies in the line of duty (and this has happened 42 times before) he is reborn in a new cyborg body with a backup of all his crucial data and memories, yet somehow each version is never the same. He is sometimes ruthless or callous, and he is thoroughly intractable when it comes to dispensing his version of the law. He deletes emotions he finds inefficient, and is always on the job.

The book opens on the planet of Belladonna, where Version 43 goes to solve a bizarre and gruesome murder that has claimed the lives of five people. He arrives in town and immediately starts ruffling feathers and killing people at the drop of a hat. At first Version 43 feels like a bit of an old west gunslinger story. The main character’s only concern is tracking down murderous gangsters in a lawless frontier town. Then, he dies, and the story gets much stranger. The book cuts away to the story of a bizarre alien creature called the “hive-rat”, and at first it isn’t at all clear what this has to do with the story of a cyborg officer. Then Version 44 arrives on Belladonna and the cycle starts all over again.

As the book continues, Palmer piles weirdness upon gore upon philosophy upon quantum physics and the resulting lumbering mass gains momentum until it is an infinitely strange, wonderful and oftentimes hilarious book. Although the content is occasionally gruesome, the tone is always light, dancing over the atrocities committed on every page. I’m not sure who I might recommend this book to; it feels like an acquired taste. Even still, I’ll definitely be checking out more of Palmer’s work.

LOVED IT
LOVED IT

Amazon | Indiebound

Episodic Fascism: Judge Dredd Volume 1 by Duane Swierczynski and Paul Gulacy

Judge Dredd, Volume 1Published: April 23, 2013
Publisher: IDW Publishing
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Science Fiction
Format: Paperback
Length: 120 pages

My only exposure to Judge Dredd is the 2012 movie starring Karl Urban and Olivia Thirlby, which I understand stays true to the comic while telling a pretty badass little crime story. I only watched it a week or so ago, so it seems appropriate that I finally got around to reading this collection of Dredd stories by Duane Swierczynski. Swierczynski quickly became one of my favorite authors after I tore through his excellent novel Fun and Games. I picked up this volume hoping for more of the same, although I haven’t read any of his other comic book writing.

This volume collects several short stories, some of which tie together into a larger case and some of which are one-off side stories that break up the main plotline. The larger thread focuses on malfunctioning robots, but there is also a story about kidnappers threatening clones of famous people and a judge who has the mind of a killer living inside his head. The stories are generally short and to-the-point, but instead of making the book brisk and action-filled, it feels like Swierczynski is always rushing to the next plot point. The result just comes off as shallow and repetitive.

Additionally, there isn’t much characterization to go around. It feels like this is probably appropriate for the universe – Dredd also didn’t have much in the way of characterization – but it doesn’t help that the dialogue is occasionally stilted or campy. Judge Anderson had more depth in the movie, but here she felt like nothing but a handy plot device. I was also regularly distracted by the use of made-up swear-words, which I’m sure fits with the series as a whole, but just felt silly here.

Ultimately, I felt like the episodic structure undermined this volume, and I would have preferred to see a longer, more developed storyline set in the Dredd universe. I might try to track down some of the older Dredd books for comparison’s sake, but I don’t think I’ll be reading any more of this series.

DISLIKED IT
DISLIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Indiebound

Birth of a Real Boy: The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and The Ship That Sank Twice by Mike Carey and Peter Gross

The Unwritten: Tommy Taylor and The Ship That Sank TwicePublished: September 24, 2013
Publisher: Vertigo
Genre(s): Graphic Novel, Fantasy
Format: Hardcover
Length: 160 pages

The Unwritten tells the story of Tom Taylor and his late father’s series of bestselling fantasy novels that revolve around a boy named Tommy Taylor inspired by his real-life counterpart… or was it the other way around?

I’ve only read two volumes of the main series, but I definitely enjoyed the ever-increasing surrealism as the literary world begins to encroach more and more on Tom’s life. This volume, “The Ship That Sank Twice” serves as a bit of a prequel to the main series as well as a standalone retelling of the first Tommy Taylor adventure.

The book consists of two alternating storylines – one in which Tom’s father begins putting together his plans for a media empire revolving around his son’s “mysterious” origins and another that follows the mishaps of his fictional creation. If the book was nothing but Tommy Taylor’s first adventure, it might feel like a bit of a re-tread; part of the joke of The Unwritten has always been that Tommy Taylor is a more cynical, clichéd analog of Harry Potter.

Thankfully, Carey makes the Tommy Taylor story stand out a bit by playing with the tropes in interesting ways and leavening the proceedings with humor. One of my favorite moments in the book happens when a series of ever-larger animals discover the infant Tommy floating on the ocean and argue over who will get to eat him.

As for the storyline that focuses on Tom’s father, it serves as a chilling counterpoint to the magical adventures of his creation. Tom’s father comes off as nothing but a cold-blooded manipulator, willing to destroy his marriage and the life of his son in the name of a long-term publicity stunt. This thread grounds the narrative and offsets Tommy’s magical adventures with a growing menace.

The art throughout the book is gorgeous, and the layouts are oftentimes dynamic in ways that make the story jump off the page without impacting its readability. Mostly this book just made me want to dive back into the main series so that I could continue experiencing the odd story of Tom Taylor’s life. I definitely recommend this book, although I would also recommend picking up at least the first volume of The Unwritten first to get the full effect.

REALLY LIKED IT
REALLY LIKED IT

Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from Net Galley.

Amazon | Indiebound

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