Book Review: Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Originally published to Geek Exchange.

When a man steals a car and drives to the end of a lane, where he commits suicide, it sets off an unfathomable horror on an English family. The premise of Neil Gaiman’s first novel in five years is the basis for a subtle, intense read that may very well be his best fantasy yet.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane opens with a man revisiting his childhood home in England, following his memories down a country lane to a house that he vaguely remembered. There, he abruptly remembers his past, and the tragic events that set into motion a horrifying presence that was unleashed against the world. A man stole his family’s car and committed suicide in it. Something has been released, and our narrator comes across a strange family, the Hempstocks, who know things that they couldn’t possibly know. The youngest, Lettie, becomes the narrator’s only hope to staying alive while dangers from around and within come for him. Lettie is a strange young girl. She claims that the duck pond in her back yard is an ocean, while her grandmother claims to remember the Big Bang.

There’s an understated feeling to this short novel, a multi-layered narrative that flows smoothly as the pages turn. It’s a story about memory and stories, and I get the sense that this is a story that is a very personal one for its author. Our young narrator is a shy, bookish boy who’s afraid of the world around him, but taking comfort in his familiar surroundings.

Gaiman strips away the comfort following the upheaval of his world. The death of the Opal Miner stirs up something dark, and unwittingly, our narrator is partially responsible for the utter terror that follows him and young Lettie Hempstock when they go to investigate. There are things beyond the world that simply do not belong in ours, and it finds its way into the places where he’s the safest. There’s a visceral sense of horror that bubbles up and grows as it slowly takes over his life and surroundings, leaving him with a single safe way out. This is a fantasy of a different caliber, one that is both subtle and powerful as the narrator observes an entirely new world around him. This is a raw novel, full of emotion, one that refused to let me go until I finished it.

There’s an almost epic sense of proportions in this novel, a tragic good verses evil story fought on the tiniest level, and it succeeds in the most heartbreaking way. Gaiman is a master storyteller, one who carefully constructs his characters and makes their lives miserable for an incredible payoff for the reader.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is a powerful, masterful work of fiction, one that resonates long after the last page has been turned and the book put away on the shelf. Quite simply, this short, incredible novels is one of the best of the year, and is not to be missed.

 

Book Review: NOS4A2, by Joe Hill

Originally published on Geek Exchange.

A man named Charlie Manx has a special car that he uses to take children to a magical place called Christmasland. The problem is, once they arrive, they can never leave, and they never realize the horrible truth to the man and place. This is the background for Joe Hill’s latest novel, NOS4A2. This novel is Hill’s magnum opus, an incredible work of fiction that is equally fantastic, horrifying and utterly impossible to put down once you begin.

At some point in the 1980s, a girl nicknamed Victoria, (Brat to her father) lives in a troubled home. Her parents don’t get along, and to escape the arguments, she rides her bike through the woods, where she finds a covered bridge. It’s not really a real bridge, however: it’s a conduit that allows her to find lost objects. She’s soon after introduced to a new world: there’s certain people with abilities to enter another world, one that’s split away from the real world, and powered by their imaginations. Armed with a totem, they can use this conduit to accomplish certain things. In Vic’s case, it’s her bike. Maggie, a librarian, it’s scrabble tiles. For Manx, it’s his terrible car. When Vic and Manx’s worlds collide, it sets them on a path that’s filled with madness, terror and violence.

Joe Hill has established a name for himself when it comes to dark speculative fiction. His collection of short fiction, 20th Century Ghosts, is an excellent read, his comic series Locke & Key, as well as his first two novels, Heart Shaped Box and Horns have received wide acclaim. NOS4A2 adds to his superior backlist and it’s easily going to be one of the best books released in 2013.This novel is a long, sprawling narrative that covers decades of the character’s lives, and it’s by far Hill’s most complex novel to date. Despite that, it breezes by quickly, and it’s a testament to Hill’s ability to weave together a number of divergent characters and each of their actions without losing sight of the overarching picture.

A delight throughout NOS4A2 is the tiny references peppered throughout: Charlie Manx at one point carries around a silver hammer – Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, anyone? Music titles, like many of Hill’s other works, work their way into the prose many times. There’s a character named de Zoet, which in and of itself doesn’t mean much, until one follows Hill on Twitter for a while, where you might have seen that The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell was one of his favorite books. When the characters get a glimpse into Charlie Manx’s head, there’s a neat reference to Hill’s fantastic comic series Locke & Key on the map with Lovecraft Keyhole. Beyond these references, there’s also Hill’s wondrous preference for the double entendre. The titular car, a 1938 Rolls Royce Wraith is entirely perfect for this sort of story, while Vic’s own ride, a Triumph Motorcycle, likewise is born for the role that it plays in the story.

At its core, NOS4A2 is about a single, basic concept: the importance of loving relationships. Vic comes out of a home that has quite a bit of tension that feels typical for the 1980s (especially if one’s reference point for suburban culture is films like ET and Terminator 2), and has a difficult relationship with her parents. She eventually moves out, taking off on her bike and ending up finding Manx, who attempts to kill her. She’s saved by Lou, a biker fleeing from his own problems. With Manx apprehended, Lou and Vic become an unconventional couple, with a little boy, Wayne.

Through Manx, we see that relationships are far more important. In many senses of the word, he’s a type of vampire, one who’s sustained by the empathy and emotions of the children that he kidnaps, forging an ever-depleting pool that he continually draws upon. His helpers, terrible men who kidnap and murder in his name, are strung along in a Stockholm syndrome-like relationship of their own, one that leaves them shriveled up and ultimately, dead.

The problems don’t stop with Manx’s apprehension, and his relationship with his captured wards goes both ways: Vic, now an illustrator for a popular novel series calledSearch Engine, goes crazy as she begins to receive calls from the children of Christmasland, who are going hungry without their master. The episode forces Vic to rethink her memories and childhood, which adds in an entirely new level to the horror that she faces: while she thinks that what she experienced were false memories, they were in reality, completely true. That, to me, is something far scarier than the violence, blood and gore that we see throughout the book. It’s still scary, but Hill knows exactly where to twist the knife to crank up the temperature for his characters.

Amongst this drama is an overarching theme of modernity versus tradition. Manx, by his own admission is over a century old by the time that the book begins, frequently rails against the flaws of women in society: modern dress styles, tattoos, sexual behavior are all lifestyle choices that he feels compelled to work against, and often help him select his victims: children whose parents are deemed immoral are often the ones selected for Christmasland. On the other side of the line are the characters who inhabit of modern society. Vic is a single, tattooed parent who drives a motorcycle. Maggie is a punk-rock lesbian librarian. Lou is an overweight geek who’s willing to go with the flow, and so on. They’re products of their surroundings, and as alien to Manx as the vampire is to them. In a lot of ways, this book works with and without the supernatural elements, as the cultural clash sets up a comparably horrifying motive for Manx’s actions throughout the book.

Finishing the book, it’s easy to see the battles that are waged between the characters, time and time again. On one side, Vic is backed with her loving family, who go to extraordinary lengths to keep her safe, informed and loved. Manx, on the other hand, has his insatiable hunger and his car, and his anger and iron grip on long-gone traditional life simply isn’t enough to sustain him.

Hill balances all of these relationships throughout the novel, building up a convincing base as we follow Vic throughout her childhood and adult life, and looking back, it’s an impressive effort that really succeeds once all the cards are on the table. Moreover, there’s not a single instance when this novel is bogged down with unneeded exposition, explanation or road map. He sets the characters into play, and lets the story take over. It’s a fun, exhilarating ride.

NOS4A2 as a whole is quite possibly Hill’s best book to date, and it’s easily one of the best that will be published this year. Balancing a complicated story, incredible characters and a really horrifying sense of dread and discomfort, this is dark fantasy at its absolute peak. Hill pulls it off seemingly effortlessly, and already, he has us eagerly waiting for more.

Book Review: Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, by John Joseph Adams

A while ago, I wrote for Geek Magazine’s online portal, Geek Exchange. It was a fun gig, and a decent outlet to write a bunch of articles and reviews. Sadly, it didn’t last: my editor was abruptly fired, and the internal restructuring left me with a bad taste in my mouth, and I ended up leaving. Checking back the other day, it seems that it was the beginning of the end: the site is no longer there, replaced with something else. All my reviews and articles vanished. Fortunately, I was able to recover the reviews via the Wayback Machine, and I’m going to be posting them up here.

The image of the Mad Scientist is deeply ingrained in our popular culture. It’s a scientist with a plan that none other dare to attempt, due to the sheer insanity and peripheral casualties that usually occur. We can’t get enough of them, from Victor Frankenstein to Lex Luthor to Dr. Horrible. Anthologist John Joseph Adams has brought together 22 stories in The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination, an impressive book that purports to be guide for the singular, misunderstood genius, and it covers the range and depth of their insanity.

There’s no doubt that the Mad Scientist is a reaction to the great leaps and bounds that science has brought society. Mary Shelley’s titular Victor Frankenstein came at a point with incredible leaps and bounds in the scientific community, especially when it came to biology. Over the course of the twentieth century, we’ve seen advances in modern healthcare with the introduction of penicillin and the creation of the atomic bomb. We’ve gone to the Moon, all the while developing missiles that could destroy a city across the world. It’s interesting that we have such reverence for the character while their real life counterparts are rarely as venerated. The villains of the comic books are funny, bumbling folk, easy pickings for the heroes of the story. They’re funny, ironic, in a way.

As a result, it’s the humorous stories that really stand out in this book:  The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is an unexpectedly hilarious read. Stories such as Professor Incognito Apologizes: an Itemized List by Austin Grossman, Father of the Groom by Harry Turtledove, Ancient Equations by L. A. Banks, Rural Singularity by Alan Dean Foster andThe Angel of Death Has a Business Plan by Heather Lindsley had me in stitches throughout. They’re pointed deconstructions of the elaborate plans that are frequent in the Mad Scientist world, undercut by a dose of reality, some unexamined element, or the workings of those who they depend upon.

Indeed, it’s the stories where the Mad Scientist is taken overly seriously where the volume doesn’t quite work: The Executor by Daniel H. Wilson is a ponderous story to get through, joining a small number of stories that didn’t work well.

Then, there are the outliers: the ones that don’t quite fit between the two extremes. Harry and Marlowe Meet the Founder of the Aetherian Revolution by Carrie Vaughn, (joining two other stories, Harry and Marlowe Escape the Mechanical Siege of Paris and Harry and Marlowe and the Talisman of the Cult of Egil, published through Lightspeed Magazine) is a fun steampunk adventure story that is equal parts pulp and science fiction. The Mad Scientist’s Daughter by Theodora Goss is a brilliant examination of the consequences of the scientist’s actions through the eyes of the daughters of some of the well known monsters in literature.

Throughout The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is an appreciation for motivation. Behind every Mad Scientist is someone who doesn’t quite tick in the normal way, and for every plan that they’ve come up with is an elaborate motivation behind it. Sometimes, it’s someone who just hasn’t gotten their due in society. Some are trying to get away from everything, others are trying to remake the world to be a better place (casualties be damned), while some are just mentally ill. Regardless of the reason, it’s the stuff of a fantastic story.

While Superheroes and their nemesi are generally found in the comic book store, there’s been a couple of similarly themed anthologies lately: Masked, edited by Lou Anders, andSuperheroes, edited by Rich Horton. While we always tend to root for the good guys, it’s the bad guys that make for a better story, who tend to have more variety than their lawful counterparts, who generally tend to fall into the Batman/Superman extremes (Vigilante vs. Unambiguously good). Mad Scientists have no such qualms, and run the gambit from bad (but with noble intentions) to really bad (trying to destroy cities). They seem to make for more interesting stories across the broad.

The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination is the book for anyone who appreciates the stuff of comic books, and it’s a tribute to Adams’ style that the outlandish characters that are usually better suited for a more visual field. While not all of the 22 stories here worked for me, collectively, it’s one super read.  Muwahaha!

* Disclaimer: John’s my boss over at Lightspeed Magazine, but I had no part in the conceptualization, publication or editing of this anthology.

Ebola: The Natural And Human History of A Deadly Virus

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I picked up this book the other day: reading up on the ongoing West African Ebola Outbreak has become a focus of research and interest of mine lately. My interests in Ebola go back to the granddaddy of all Ebola books: The Hot Zone, by Richard Preston, published back in the mid-90s, and read while I was in Middle or High School. It’s been one of those things that’s sort of been at the back of my mind in the intervening years, with an assumption that at some point (not an IF), it’ll break out into a wider population and cause some real harm. That’s what’s happened for almost a year now over in West Africa.

David Quammen’s book is an interesting review of the history of Ebola, and an excellent alternative to Preston’s book. It’s short – this is actually an excerpt from his 2012 book, Spillover: Animal Infections And the Next Human Pandemic, where his publishers asked him to take the various chapters on Ebola and update them a bit in light of the ongoing outbreak. The result is a primer of how Ebola interacted with people since it first erupted in Central Africa in 1976. It’s a little opportunistic on the publisher’s part, but it provides some good context for what’s going on in Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone.

Quammen takes a less sensational track than Preston did, outlining his own experiences in Africa as they searched for Ebola, as well as a number of earlier outbreaks that occurred in the region. The end result is a good, if very short, overview of the virus.

I’m not entirely sure if separating out the chapters really work for the greater argument, and it’s clear that the greater work here is from his other book, Spillover. The central premise of that book looks at how diseases spill out from an animal reservoir, which is a good question to be asking: not just for this particular outbreak, but for the ones that will come as Africa (and other places around the world) become less isolated and more connected to the global community.

The Martian, Andy Weir

Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian: A Novel, has garnered a lot of buzz lately: it’s an addicting, rapid-fire book that runs along with a manic energy that makes it difficult to put down. You know how you slow down while passing an accident on the high way? I had that reaction as I blew through it, waiting to see just how Astronaut Mark Watney would survive.

The plot of the book is fairly straight forward: a low-ranking astronaut, Watney, is stranded on Mars when a storm prompts the evacuation of his expedition just six days after they arrived. When he awakens, he finds that he’s alone on the planet, with no way to call home to let NASA know he’s still alive, and more importantly, let them know that he needs a ride home. With only the mission’s remaining supplies and equipment, he needs to figure out just how to survive until the next mission is scheduled to arrive.

A lot’s been made of the fact that this is a hard science novel: there’s a lot of technical details throughout the book, from calculations of air volume to chemical reactions to physical engineering. All of this gives the book a technical, grounded feel, and you can imagine that someday, this book will come true, or at the very least, be used by NASA to plan for a Mars mission. It’s near-term outlook and reliance on strictly realistic components makes this a safe science fiction novel. It’s the sort of book that’s okay for the general public to read because it could really happen; there’s no aliens, galactic empires or expeditionary backstory that require any great leaps of faith for the reader. It seems to work well, too: the book currently sits at #11 on the New York Times bestseller list for Hardcover fiction, and is ranked #158 in books over on Amazon (#7 for Science Fiction).

That isn’t meant to denigrate the book: it’s easy to see why it’s so popular when it’s cracked open. Weir’s narrative plays out as Watney recounts his misfortunes in an audio log, occasionally jumping back to Earth and in between to other characters for some outside context. They, like the reader, are captivated by this slowly unfolding disaster. There are some nice touches to this: cable news puts Watney front and center for their own segment. Like Apollo 13, all eyes become focused on the skies above, waiting to see if the astronaut will return home safely. Weir’s Watney is a fun character: witty, immature, resourceful and optimistic, it’s hard to do anything but root for him to get through the crisis, and you can’t help but cheer for him as he overcomes just about everything that Mars throws at him. This is high-tech Robinson Crusoe, with a much steeper difficulty curve.

Space disaster narratives have been popular lately: last year’s big film was Gravity, which featured a similar premise: an astronaut, stranded after an accident, must find her way back home, using only what she’s got with her. These are good stories to root for, because at their core, they’re about humanity against nature.

What holds The Martian back from being a *great* book is what separates it from Gravity. Watney’s trials are technical in nature, and Weir never quite spends the time to step back and have him question his survival or do anything but blindly plow forward from task to task. Gravity presented a far more interesting character story that addressed some much larger themes: Stone’s own challenges (fall) and eventual recommitment to live life on her own terms make it a much stronger narrative that makes me come back time and time again.

But, I enjoyed the hell out of The Martian. It was an exciting read from start to finish, one that kept me up late into the evening, frantically turning pages to see what happened next. That’s what every good book should do, and this does it nicely.

Review: Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

The Justice of Toren faithfully served the Radch, a galaxy-spanning empire overseen by Anaander Mianaai, the multibodied, immortal The Lord of the Radch. The empire has stood for millennia, maintained by a militaristic system of ships, human soldiers and undead ancillary soldiers under the control of their ship. The ships, such as the Justice of Toren, are run by advanced AI systems who oversee all parts of their command and mission. With the opening of Ann Leckie’s debut novel Ancillary Justice, we’re introduced to Breq, the last individual of the Justice of Toren, whose twenty year mission is almost at an end.

Epic in scale, but intensely character-driven, Ancillary Justice never gets lost in the minutia of world building details that so often befalls most space operas: Leckie is focused and precise with her story and characters, putting them through their deliberate paces as the story advances.

The story unfolds in two narratives: one in the present, the other in the recent past. Breq has arrived on a cold, distant world, where she rescues Seivarden Vendaai, a soldier in her service over two thousand years ago, from certain death. She’s on a mission to acquire a weapon that will help her kill Anaander Mianaai. The reasons behind her mission unfold with a flashback narrative that runs about twenty years before the present day, as she and her ancillaries are over the planet Ors, where one of her lieutenants comes across a vast conspiracy that could rock the foundations of Radchaai society.

Breq’s very nature is a unique voice, and an interesting choice for this novel. She’s everywhere, and the first chapter when we see her in her former glory is a fantastic scene that flows from each of her decks down to the planet’s surface, showing just how powerful she is as a tool, and just how resiliant she is as a character. When she’s on her own, Leckie gives the distinct sense that Breq is incomplete, formidable as she is as the last Esk from the Justice of Toren.

One of the delights of this novel is the complete flip of gender roles in this novel. Space opera is historically a very male-oriented sort of fiction, and about halfway through this book, I realized that I couldn’t pull out a single male character that had been named, or even mentioned. It’s an odd change, but that seems to be the intention: changing up a reader’s expectations helps make this a more interesting and enjoyable read, because it left me with fewer character memes to work with as I read. Throughout the novel, Leckie is a master with her characters, something made more difficult when they span multiple bodies and at times, with competing factions within one’s self.

Leckie pulls the reader along in excellent form, folding in a nice range of interesting characters and their actions. It’s a task made less easy when parts of the story sit twenty (and even a thousand!) years apart, but the end result comes together at the end in satisfying and unexpected ways. The story begins as a sort of quest, and evolves into one of the more politically astute adventures that I can think of that’s come in recent years. Elements such as societal change become readily apparent as we come towards the end, providing a very real sense of allegory that’s all too relevant in this day and age.

Topped with a fantastic cover by John Harris, Ancillary Justice is easily one of the best books that I’ve read thus far this year (in a year crowded with excellent books!), and it’s one of the best first novels of this new decade. Already well known for her work as a short story author and editor, Leckie is now a novelist to keep a close eye on.

The Kassa Gambit

The Kassa Gambit

As the new year rolls around, I’ve been keeping my eyes out for the new crop of books that are set to be released. Already, there’s a handful that have caught my eye, including M.C. Planck’s debut novel The Kassa Gambit. Set in deep space, with inter-colony intrigue, a smuggling ship and a neat cover, it has all the hallmarks of a book that looks to be a fun read, and for the first two-thirds, it really is. The final third, however, demonstrates just how quickly a book can go from a fun and entertaining affair to one that fills me with the desire to throw the book across the room. It’s a shame, because this book looks as through it might have been good, rather than blatantly offensive.

Set in deep space following the ecological collapse of Earth, humanity has taken to the stars by way of nodes, transportation points that allow ships to travel the vast distances of space, and settle on a variety of colonial worlds. The crew of a smuggling ship, led by Prudence Falling, come across Kassa on a routine run, only to find that the planet’s population has been utterly devastated by an unknown attacker. Close behind her is Kyle Daspar, a political officer and double agent infiltrating the League, a political movement intent on dominating the planet Altair Prime. The two characters fall into one another’s company, and uncover something that is poised to upend the order that’s been established in space.

The overarching political elements to this story, the characters and overall universe start out great, and I was reminded a number of times of a favored novel, The Icarus Hunt, by Timothy Zahn more than once. Planck has set up a neat universe, with some good logic behind the people and mechanics of how things run. As the characters move forward, we see that not all is what it seems, and that their groundbreaking discovery has very different implications than they previously thought: it’s part of a political movement that’s designed to allow the League to gain an incredible amount of political power. Here, it’s a neat take on what’s generally a blunt instrument in science fiction, and there’s a nice blend of space opera and political commentary here.

However, around the 60% mark, the book loses steam – a lot of it. The characters break down considerably, and the political conflict that felt very nuanced, devolves into a bunch of caricatured villains and half-hearted action that moves along only by momentum. The characters just… drift and bicker to no end. Worse, however, is how Planck completely upends the two characters, absolutely ruining everything that came before it. In the final act, Prudence is threatened by a violent rape that leaves her utterly traumatized  The scene is so poorly thought out and out of place that it feels as though it doesn’t belong.

I don’t want to diminish the real horrors of sexual assault, and the presence of the actions aren’t what bothered me: it was that the scenes felt as though they were simply dropped in as a tool from a menu: threaten main female character with violation, and have the male character that she’s previously hated/disliked/attracted to inconsistently throughout the book sweep in to save the day and protect her dignity. The scene is so utterly by the numbers – a smelly, disgusting enemy guard advancing on the stripped naked (Yep) characters, before letting his guard down and being taken down.

There has been a lot of talk about this sort of thing in the geek lit community, from Seanan McGuire and Jim C. Hines in the literature realm to quite a bit in the video game industry. McGuire had a point recently that bothered me: a reader asked her when a main character of hers would be raped. Not if – when. The action seems to have become a tool through which a female protagonist can be almost casually brutalized and I was very bothered to see it present in this book. McGuire had this to say about it: Because it is a foregone conclusion, you see, that all women must be raped, especially when they have the gall to run around being protagonists all the damn time.  This sort of thing troubles me greatly, and while I don’t know what the author’s intentions are with the scene, whether or not it’s simply an escalation, but the male characters in the book are never threatened with similar trauma.

Beyond that, the action becomes a point where Falling moves from being a strong, confident character in charge of a space ship, to someone who realizes that all she really needs in life is a strong man to protect her from the bad things in the world, which runs completely contrary to everything that ran up before that. It was enough to make me slam the book shut when I finished, never to open it again. I don’t know what the intentions of the scene were, or if there was some noble intention behind it, but whatever the reason, it sent the book off the rails to such a degree that there is no return. It’s a shame, because the book had quite a bit of promise.

So, The Kassa Gambit turns from a rather fun read to one that’s downright offensive to read by the time you reach the end, and ultimately, while it contains a number of interesting kernels, they’re never followed up on or capitalized in any major way. It’s a shame, because the book was a promising one.

Jagannath, Karin Tidbeck

A journalist recounts an encounter with an alien entity that appears throughout human history, a woman creates a creature from her own blood and spit in a can, and a man falls in love with an airship. These are just a couple of the tales to be found in Swedish author Karin Tidbeck‘s collection of short fiction, Jagannath. The collection has received considerable critical acclaim in the past couple of months, from Tor.com to NPR, and it’s easy to see that the attention is well deserved: it’s a brilliant book, full of stories that linger long after the words have been read, and the book replaced on the bookshelf.

Jagannath is by far one of the best books that I’ve picked up this year, a collection of short stories that left me utterly breathless and at the edge of my seat while reading it. More than once, I found myself at the end of a story, only to turn back and begin rereading it immediately. Each story in this short book is a gem, wonderfully crafted and constructed, each leaving me with a shiver of dread and thrill.

What impressed me the most is how utterly normal and natural a vast majority of the stories felt while reading them: normal people encountering something that’s just slightly off from what is typically natural. A woman comes out of the woods and marries into a family – supernatural elements may or may not be at play, while a suicidal friend in Rebecka may or may not be insane, or tormented by divine intervention. Other stories are more fantastic, but still utterly grounded, such as the strange call center in Who is Arvid Pekon?, the timeless fairy world in Augusta Prima or the historical encounters with some sort of creature in Pyret. Still others are way out there, such as in Aunts or the title story, Jagannath. In a lot of ways, she does Lovecraft better than Lovecraft ever did himself.

Location figures into this: I’ve come across several articles and interviews where Tidbeck highlights her home in Sweden, with its long winters as an inspiration for some of the strange occurrences that she’s written about. Coming from New England, with its dark geography and short summers, I can certainly relate to the dark atmosphere that has been injected into these stories.

Tidbeck’s stories are uniformly haunting, surreal and sublime, and the collection as a whole is a wonder to behold. There’s little surprise to see that the book is recommended by such authors as Ursula K. LeGuin and China Miéville, and Jagannath easily falls into the Weird subgenre, as easily as it can be classified into any genre. The stories are a bit odd, and should place Tidbeck on every reader’s must-read list from here on out. I for one, can’t wait to see what she has coming up next.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo

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Nicholas de Monchaux’s Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is a stunning history of the development of NASA’s A7L EVA Space Suit. Used on the Apollo and Skylab missions during the heights of the Space Race, the space suit is quite possibly one of the more recognizable images of mankind’s existence in space. In this extraordinary book, he outlines what we know in abstract form: that the lunar landings were an event that was the cumulative efforts of thousands, if not millions of people across a huge number of industries. The real triumph of Apollo isn’t the steps that made history on the moon: it’s all of the steps in the decades before that got them there. Laid out in 21 chapters (the same number of layers that went into a space suit), and covered in a latex dust jacket, de Monchaux methodically drills into the development of a garment that would protect an astronaut in the extreme, inhospitable environment of space. In doing so, he covers far more than just the evolution of the spacesuit: he provides an in depth history of how we went to space and the impact that it had, touching on social, military and political influences.

It’s impossible to oversell the book: what de Monchaux has put together an exceptional piece of history, one that’s eminently readable and beautiful to behold. Laid out with numerous sources with every chapter, photographs and diagrams throughout, it’s a strikingly engaging read. Potentially dense from the outside description, we’re treated to a wide-ranging examination of the background, development and execution of the iconic, all while the book covers everything from the bra industry to the New Look fashion collection by Dior to the military industrial complex and the Cold War.

While these connections seem completely unrelated and separate from Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon, we come to find that they are incredibly and intricately intertwined. Spacesuit begins far before NASA and Apollo were conceived of in the 1760s, when mankind was first searching for ways to come up off the ground, first in balloons. What follows is a story that follows mankind’s experiences in the extremes, and we find out not only why such protection is needed, but how we figured out that we needed it in the first place.

In a large way, Spacesuit is the story of technical evolution in the much larger context of humanity’s greatest technological achievement. NASA was a complicated organization that has its roots in a number of diverse fields. Custom fitted for the Apollo and Skylab astronauts, the research, development and production of each space suit was the product of an incredible organizational structure that NASA oversaw from beginning to end, working closely with partner organizations, such as the International Latex Corporation, among many others. The space suits were constructed to exceedingly minute tolerances, and accompanied by reams of paperwork certifying every single component and step along the way.

Alongside the evolution of technology, Spacesuit contains a parallel narrative of the rise of NASA’s organizational structure, in how planners oversaw the development of the world’s most complicated machines and processes. The story of Apollo’s spacesuits is a microcosm for NASA as a whole: innovative, but bureaucratic, it shows the enormity of the challenge laid down by President John F. Kennedy at Rice University in 1962. Accomplished in hindsight, this history demonstrates just how utterly impossible the task would have likely been had it not been for the expertise in both public and private organizations. In addition to the technical and historical content, de Monchaux looks back philosophically at the end, examining the very nature of systems in nature, and how utterly deceptively complex a project such as Apollo really is.

Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo is the rare extraordinary book that provides such a wide-reaching view of the workings of the space industry that brought us to the Moon and back. Frequently, I found myself almost faced with numerous facts across all number of fields, from fashion and society to computing to military history and the Cold War. de Monchaux’s words are deceptively easy to read, dense with information, yet shedding the dry, pedantic nature of an academic text. In telling the story of the space suit, we’re treated to something much greater: a story of recognizing and realizing impossibility, and then overcoming it with a clear vision of what to accomplish. This book is a must-read for a wide range of people: those interested in the history of the Space Race, certainly, but also those with an eye towards project management and leadership. This book outlines the complicated nature of NASA and its task, and shows that it wasn’t just a handful of astronauts who deserve all of the credit for stepping on the moon.

Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed

Saladin Ahmed’s debut novel, Throne of the Crescent Moon has been getting a lot of attention since its release earlier this year. It’s a fantastic novel, right out of the gate, gripping and engaging, but it’s also been getting quite a bit of attention for its location. Epic fantasy set in a recognizable Middle East – inspired world; it’s a far cry from the pseudo-Middle-Ages-European settings that most worlds seem to inhabit.

For all of the hand-wringing lately about how little innovation there is in the fantasy world when it comes to actual world building, Ahmed’s story is a nice change of pace; not because an author has bowed to public pressure and recognized that they can break out of the pack, but because he’s been writing about this for a while now.

Throne of the Crescent Moon isn’t all that notable within the fantasy genre because it’s set somewhere besides Europe: it’s notable because it’s an incredibly strong, character-driven narrative. It’s the first fantasy novel that I’ve read in a while where all of the characters really work to own their destiny, and that *they*, not some long forgotten prophesy has guided their actions to make them realize who they really are. It’s a refreshing change of pace.

The line of storytelling that has been troubled me lately is the prophetic style of fantasy, and it’s one reason why I tend to favor more science fiction-flavored stories in general, which tends to avoid it. Far too often, character lives have been pre-determined, with the central focus revolving around the character realizing their inherent importance or internal strengths. Far more interesting to me is when the characters move the plot forward on their own, with their own actions helping or hindering them. Thankfully, this is largely what I’ve found over the course of reading Throne of the Crescent Moon with its three central characters: Doctor Adoulla Makhslood, a ghul hundter of Dhamsawaat, Raseed bas Raseed, Adoulla’s assistant, and Zamia Badawi, the shapeshifting protector of her band. The trio is deeply and at times, broadly flawed, but as the novel progresses, there’s an increasing recognition of this, and growth to overcome it.

A murder triggers the opening of the novel, as a powerful dark presence rises around the city of Dhamswaat, draws in the elder Doctor and his young, naïve assistant, and the young protector together amidst the backdrop of political revolution and corruption in the city. Following the trail of the gruesome murders, the unlikely band comes across a much greater conspiracy that threatens their whole world.

The plot isn’t terribly original, but Ahmed’s richly textured world more than makes up for it. The streets of Dhamsawatt in particular are a delight to read. Vividly written, the city and characters are captured in their entirety. Defined by their flaws, each character essentially works to overcome some of their learned nature (or, it’s clear that some of them already have), presenting a nice ensemble of characters that felt very real to me.

Ahmed’s writing is the last main pillar of the novel, and Throne of the Crescent Moon is a deftly written story that pulls the reader along effortlessly. His prose is crisp, detailed and allowed me to burn through the book in just a couple of sittings, something that feels like an ever-rarer joy to do. The book is a short read, but ultimately a satisfying novel, one that has left me awaiting more installments of Ahmed’s fascinating world. He’s certainly an author worth checking out and watching for the future.