Scott Hawkins’ The Library at Mount Char is dark, weird and funny. It’s basically the perfect book for me. I knew I was going to love it within a few sentences, and so far it hasn’t disappointed.
The main character, Carolyn, has penchant for brutality that constantly surprises me, too. Where other books would establish that the main character had done terrible things but they were all in the past, Hawkins gleefully undermines those expectations. Carolyn behaves in ways that are utterly inhuman without necessarily making her an unlikable character. Of course, it definitely helps that other characters in the book are much, much worse.
My only real criticism so far is that the book’s cover completely misses the mark. It feels like the kind of cover you’d see on your average literary thriller sent straight to the bargain bin. I’m sure it happened because the book already feels impossible to sell from what I’ve read so far, but it’s incredibly unfortunate because I would not have picked this book up off a shelf without first understanding the completely bat-shit premise.
I’m only about 15% through at this point, so it’s possible the book won’t deliver on its early promises, but who can go wrong with chapter titles like “Buddhism for Assholes”?
Joseph D’Lacey’s Black Feathers is an interesting anomaly in the world of apocalyptic fiction. Instead of focusing on a dystopian post-apocalypse, as is the fashion nowadays, Black Feathers consists of two interlocking plot threads: one that starts in modern-day and continues through the fall of society, and one that follows a character hundreds of years in the future. It’s also the first part of a two-book series which continues in The Book of The Crowman (December 2013).
In the modern-day, Black Feathers focuses on the Black family, specifically their young son Gordon Black, who may be connected to a mysterious messiah figure named The Crowman. Crows seem to follow Gordon everywhere he goes. His mother and father are oftentimes accosted on the street by people with prophetic visions of a future where The Crowman heralds the beginning of the Black Dawn and Gordon’s part in it. The Crowman is an interesting combination of savior and destroyer, sometimes described as a demonic presence, a half-man half-crow who only wants to destroy the world and at other times as a healing presence with a deep connection to nature. The more we hear about The Crowman, the more unsettling and dangerous he seems, even as it also becomes increasingly clear that Gordon is deeply connected to The Crowman.
In the far future, Black Feathers tells the story of Megan Maurice, a young woman picked to apprentice with her village’s Keeper, a sort of combination medicine man and archivist tasked with keeping the story of The Crowman alive. Megan must travel along the Black Feathered Path to cement her destiny as the next keeper, a journey that involves visions of the past as well as harrowing encounters with The Crowman’s more animalistic aspect. Megan experiences visions of Gordon’s life and tasked with recording them in a special journal for safekeeping. One thing I really liked is that Megan’s world might be “post-apocalyptic”, but it doesn’t feel ruined. She has a comfortable life in a small village, and it is only when she ventures outside that safe place that she begins to encounter danger, all in the name of traveling on her path towards becoming a Keeper.
In fact, there are a lot of things I liked about Black Feathers; the portrayal of The Crowman was particularly nuanced and unsettling, and I also liked the juxtaposition between the modern-day and far future. I love the idea of a messiah who isn’t so black and white, simply because maybe the world needs a little destruction before it gets saved. The book’s true villains, the power-hungry Ward, were a bit more stereotypically drawn – the bloodthirsty corporate influence made flesh – but that didn’t make their methods any less terrifying.
My biggest complaint is with the book’s pacing. It took me a long time to make it past the first third of the book, and it was only when I decided to make a concerted effort to finish it that I finally started making progress. However, as I neared the end it became clear that Black Feathers wasn’t actually going to resolve anything major. Gordon and Megan both have some intense experiences as the book progresses, but these events seem relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Black Feathers, sold as the first volume in a two-book series, feels more like the first half of one massive novel. I liked it enough to finish this first volume, but I’m honestly not sure if I’ll make the effort to pick up the second book later this year.
Full disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from NetGalley.
Published: December 31, 2009 Publisher: Subterranean Genre(s): Dark Fantasy Format: Hardcover Length: 136 pages
John Scalzi is commonly known as an author, a prolific and long-established blogger, a man with a mischievous sense of humor, and a connoisseur of all things bacon-related. I’m not entirely sure where I first came across his work, but as soon as I finished reading Old Man’s War, he instantly became one of my new favorite authors. I worked my way through the rest of his books and so thoroughly enjoyed them that I was inspired to check out the work of one of his clear inspirations, Robert A. Heinlein.
Up until just recently, all of Scalzi’s fiction output was fairly easily categorized as science fiction. Sometimes it was militaristic, sometimes funny, but all of it generally involved space travel, future societies, aliens, and other common sci-fi tropes. Accordingly, when he announced that he would be publishing his first fantasy work, The God Engines, I was intrigued. It’s always fascinating when an author you love decides to branch out into new territories. However, I do remember him cautioning his fans that it was particularly dark fantasy, and would probably surprise anyone used to his existing work.
After finishing the book, I can see why he felt the need to warn his readers about a possible bumpy ride. It’s a short, sharp, brutal window into a particularly cruel and twisted society. None of Scalzi’s trademark humor is present, the characters are all deeply flawed individuals, and the climactic events are so gruesome that I would not be surprised to find the book filed under “horror”.
The God Engines tells the story of a society that uses captured gods to power its starships. In this world, gods are very real creatures, sustained by the faith and prayer of their followers, but subject to the machinations of more powerful deities. When a society is conquered, the citizens aren’t simply converted to a new religion; as a further indignity, their former god is enslaved and bent to the task of providing interstellar travel to the conquering faction.
The main character, Ean Tephe, is the captain of a ship powered by a particularly nasty and recalcitrant god. The very first thing Ean does in the book is whip his starship’s captive god for disobedience. Ean is a true believer in his society’s way of life and in his god’s grace above all others and generally comes off as a stiff-necked, unsympathetic hard-liner. The only real glimpse we get into Ean’s softer side is the time he spends with Shalle, one of the ship’s rooks, who are essentially nuns, therapists or prostitutes depending on the situation.
The most noteworthy thing about Shalle is that the character is never described with gendered pronouns. It’s never quite clear if Shalle is a woman, man, or something else entirely. Ultimately, however, this is a bit distracting, and I was never quite sure how Shalle’s lack of apparent gender played into the story other than as a method of subverting our expectations. The end result is something that read more like a formal exercise in gender-neutral storytelling instead of genuine world-building.
The main plot of the book is set in motion when Ean is sent on a secret mission to an unconverted world that his god has secreted away from its enemies. Ean’s ship is tasked to travel to the distant world and open up a portal for his god so that it can convert the citizens to believers and become more powerful from their new faith. However, Ean’s experiences on the unconverted world shake his personal faith to its core, and events only snowball from there.
To be honest, The God Engines is a hard book to enjoy. The main character isn’t particularly likable, his actions are in service to a clearly corrupt society, and the end results are particularly horrifying. Scalzi doesn’t pull any punches here, but as far as I can tell, that’s the main point.
In a way, it makes sense to think of The God Engines as a writing exercise in novella form; that isn’t to say it’s an unpolished or unfinished book, however. Rather, it seems perfectly designed to let Scalzi step outside of his comfort zone and play with a new storytelling palette.
Unfortunately, although it may have been a useful experience for him as a writer, it didn’t really work for me as a form of entertainment. Although I do enjoy stories that go to dark places, I usually need someone or something to root for, and Captain Ean Teshe is not that man. The book might still be an interesting read for the Scalzi completist, but I can’t really recommend it to anyone who isn’t a hardcore fan.