Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig

I first heard of Chuck Wendig's YA novel, Under the Empyrean Sky in the interview I conducted with Chuck after reviewing The Blue Blazes. This is what Chuck had to say about it:

Under the Empyrean Sky, which is my young adult novel in a sunny dustbowl cornpunk future where a scrappy scavenger named Cael finds a secret forbidden garden in a world where their floating Empyrean overlords only allow them to grow a bloodthirsty variant of corn. It's got young love and adventure and piss-blizzards and motorvators and an agricultural pro-farmer pro-food message nestled in all the trappings. John Hornor Jacobs called it Of Mice and Men meets Star Wars, which I quite like.
So I have to be honest, I scoffed at the description, thinking there was no way that Wendig could pull of a novel targeted at a less than mature audience, and wasn't so sure about 'bloodthirsty corn' either. But when I found the title on Netgalley, I just had to give it a run. And, boy was I glad I did. Under the Empyrean Sky is everything that makes YA a powerhouse genre, a coming of age story that resonates with its audience while posing bigger questions for the cross over crowd. There is pathos, mystery, action, and a healthy dose of the bare knuckle prose that makes Wendig such a draw for me. This is no Hunger Games clone, Under the Empyrean Sky brings to mind both the classics like The Grapes of Wrath and mines the Hero monomyth with a rakish glee producing a hybrid much like the aforementioned corn; bloodthirsty and relentless.

We've seen Chuck's pitch for the novel, but lets take a look at the back copy before we move on.

Corn is king in the Heartland, and Cael McAvoy has had enough of it. It's the only crop the Empyrean government allows the people of the Heartland to grow and the genetically modified strain is so aggressive that it takes everything the Heartlanders have just to control it. As captain of the Big Sky Scavengers, Cael and his crew sail their rickety ship over the corn day after day, scavenging for valuables, trying to earn much-needed ace notes for their families. But Cael's tired of surviving life on the ground while the Empyrean elite drift by above in their extravagant sky flotillas. He's sick of the mayor's son besting Cael's crew in the scavenging game. And he's worried about losing Gwennie ? his first mate and the love of his life forever when their government-chosen spouses are revealed. But most of all, Cael is angry, angry that their lot in life will never get better and that his father doesn't seem upset about any of it. Cael's ready to make his own luck . . . even if it means bringing down the wrath of the Empyrean elite and changing life in the Heartland forever.
Wendig is obviously aware of the market trends toward dystopian YA novels, as much of the skeletal structure of the novel follows the formula. The stereotypical  oppressive government, teen aged protagonists, the beginnings of a love triangle, and the call to arms to fight the rule of the oppressors are all present here. But Wendig wisely turns it on its head, tackling real world issues that may seem too adult for the projected audience. Questions about the control and manipulation of the food that we put into our bodies and the long term effects of monkeying about with Mother Nature are front and center tied closely to the novel's worldbuilding. There are other social issues at play as well, but are much more tangential in this first novel, though I suspect that may change in subsequent volumes. But all of this social activism is handled deftly, with precious little preaching going on, either from the characters or exposition. Social issues may be a thread in the tapestry but Cael's journey for independence and freedom  is the focus and that is where the story shines.

Cael McAvoy is the epitome of a sixteen year old boy, surly with a complete disregard for authority, capable of both incredible kindness and callous indifference to the feelings of others. Self absorbed is the term that comes immediately to mind, but having been a sixteen year old boy I felt an immediate sense of authenticity to the portrayal. Wendig wisely uses the events of the story to soften the edges of his protagonist, giving both Cael and the reader the sense that Cael's world and the people in it don't fit as neatly into the preconceived boxes the sixteen year old might think. By the end of the novel, there is little doubt that Cael is poised on the brink of his true journey into manhood.

The other characters are equally well drawn and Wendig eventually shifts the point of view in such a way as to illuminate these secondary characters even more fully. Both genders get equal time to shine, with Wendig's portrayal of Cael's love interest showing particular maturity and depth without losing the naivete of youth.  I have a feeling that Gwennie Shawcatch will play a major role in later books and can't wait to see what adventures Wendig has in store for her. Cael sister, Merelda is also someone that I'm looking forward to sharing more time with. She gets just enough time in the novel to remain a pleasant cipher readers will look forward to unravelling.

But the real selling point of Under the Empyrean Sky for me was the fantastic job Wendig does of walking the line between the demands of the YA market and the reality of being sixteen. Too many YA books I've read stray so far toward the squeaky clean, that I wonder if the publishers have any idea what it is like to be a teenager. Wendig obviously hasn't forgotten. There is sex, profanity, and senseless bullying. It may not be as gloriously over the top as what Wendig's audience may have grown to expect after books like The Blue Blazes and Blackbirds, but it is there. Even in a YA novel, Wendig manages to still write in a way that doesn't castrate the voice that he's so well known for. He may have tidied it up a bit, but his touch on the pages is unmistakable. And that was the highlight of the experience for me. Seeing one of my favorite authors do something I didn't think they could pull off. In cases like this, I love being wrong.

Under the Empyrean Sky delivers on all levels with a cast of rich characters, a setting that seems limitless in possibility, a message that rides confidently beneath the current of the story and a real understanding of what it is to stand between being a child and an adult, complete with the requisite indecision and ugliness of youth. There's action, adventure, and even a bit of romance in this tale and I'm looking forward to the next installment in the Heartland Trilogy. And I've learned not to scoff at the plans of the incredibly versitile Chuck Wendig.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Mayhem by Sarah Pinborough

It's been almost a year since I started this blog, and I am just now starting to see a trickle of review copies coming in from publishers. Jo Fletcher Books, was the first company to send me more than a single title, and Sarah Pinborough's Mayhem was the first to arrive. After the Victorian themed disappointment of The Iron Wyrm Affair, I was a little hesitant to dive into another novel set in London during a similar time period. But Pinborough had me at Jack the Ripper, even though the infamous serial killer serves only as background to the infinitely more interesting tale of another set of grisly murders that were eclipsed by the Whitechapel killings. Pinborough does a superb job of threading historical fact with just the right blend of creeping and unsettling horror producing a novel of exceptional elegance and mood despite the viscera and violence of its premise.

Publisher's back copy follows:

A new killer is stalking the streets of London’s East End. Though newspapers have dubbed him ‘the Torso Killer’, this murderer’s work is overshadowed by the hysteria surrounding Jack the Ripper’s Whitechapel crimes.

The victims are women too, but their dismembered bodies, wrapped in rags and tied up with string, are pulled out of the Thames – and the heads are missing. The murderer likes to keep them.
Mayhem, not surprisingly, opens with a murder. Pinborough plays it shrewdly though, focusing in on the fear and confusion of the victim rather than gratuitous blood splatter and screaming, and allowing the reader to catch the smallest of glimpse of the madness gripping this unknown killer. With the initial hook set, we are quickly drawn into the investigation through the eyes of Dr. Thomas Bond.

Bond feels a bit like a combination of Sherlock Holmes and his constant companion Dr. John Watson. A Police Surgeon with an uncanny ability to read people as well as their lifeless remains, Dr. Bond is also an opium addict, seeking out seedy opium dens at night for relief from his crushing insomnia and anxiety. Bond is the lens of much of Pinborough's narrative, and his struggles with addiction and the increasing horrors of both Jack the Ripper and the Torso Killer's murders lend the telling a sense of foreboding and brooding intensity. Pinborogh does a wonderful job of showing Bond in various social settings as befits a man of his stature, giving us a view not only of the man haunted by the horrors of his work but the man as seen by his peers, collegues and friends. Bond is not simply a means to supply the truth of the killings, an investigative paper doll, if you will. He is a living, breathng, complex and conflicted person. It is that depth of character that sustains Mayhem during its quiter moments.

As Bond delves deeper into the mystery of the Torso Killer, he finds himself allied with a nameless priest and the fictionalized real life personage of Aaron Kosminski, a suspect judged insane in the investigations of the Ripper murders. Kosminski is afflicted by terrible visions and is linked to the malevolent entity that is responsible for the Torso Murders, and perhaps the Ripper murders by the maddening influence its presence has on London itself. Kosminski and the priests absolute belief in the supernatural nature of the murders is directly at odds with Bond's more rationale approach. This dichotomy as well as the fact that Bond, a respectable gentleman, is now allied with people from such a completely different social strata gives the reader a real sense of the time period. Pinborough shows it all, from high society to gut knotting poverty and as a result London comes alive in the telling, a real character of its own rather than a convienient backdrop for her murder mystery.

Pinborough reveals the identity of the killer at near the halfway mark, and surprisingly it doesn't weaken the tale in the slightest. Most of this is due to her choice to give us the killer's point of view in flashback as he finds himself saddled with a supernatural creature that is slowly driving him mad. The sympathy created in this telling is important and adds to the horror that this "killer" will not be redeemed, and is just one more victim of the entity now haunting London. My only compaint is that the final confrontation could have been a bit more pulse pounding and acton  packed, but that wouldn't have fit with the creeping horror and descent into despair and madness that permeates the story. The ending is exactly what it should have been, my minor quibble aside.
Despite the fact that Mayhem works perfectly well as a stand alone novel, I was quite pleased to learn that Pinborough intends to return to Dr. Bond in a sequel. I'm not sure what the future holds for Pinborough's alternate London or her engaging protagonist, but you can rest assured I'll be along for the ride. 


Monday, June 17, 2013

The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

Long before I made my first foray into fantasy novels aimed at adults, I was fascinated with Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories. For many years, my collection of all of the Holmes stories was the largest and most well worn book on my shelf. So when I saw the cover of The Iron Wyrm Affair and was immediately reminded of not only the Guy Ritchie movie featuring Tony Stark, but of some of my fondest reading memories from my adolescence. The back cover copy only further peaked my curiosity, teasing me with a seminal quote from Doyle as a final line. Take a look for yourself.

Emma Bannon, forensic sorceress in the service of the Empire, has a mission: to protect Archibald Clare, a failed, unregistered mentath. His skills of deduction are legendary, and her own sorcery is not inconsiderable. It doesn't help much that they barely tolerate each other, or that Bannon's Shield, Mikal, might just be a traitor himself. Or that the conspiracy killing registered mentaths and sorcerers alike will just as likely kill them as seduce them into treachery toward their Queen.

In an alternate London where illogical magic has turned the Industrial Revolution on its head, Bannon and Clare now face hostility, treason, cannon fire, black sorcery, and the problem of reliably finding hansom cabs.

The game is afoot..
Based on that information alone, you might think I'd love this book. It has magic, mystery, and what sounds like a mechanical dragon based on the title, and it is influenced by one of the most beloved authors of my adolescence. I approached The Iron Wyrm Affair from that place, ready to be thrilled and entertained. Sadly, while the concept is certainly compelling, the execution left quite a bit to be desired. The Iron Wyrm Affair is a mess on so many levels that even Saintcrow's best efforts are buried under the weight of her awkward prose and poor execution of some of the most basic concepts of good storytelling. I desperately wanted to like this novel, but try as I might I just couldn't look past its flaws.

My largest gripe with this first installment of the Bannon and Clare series, is the prose. While I certainly understand what Saintcrow is attempting, using the prose to convey an homage to the language of the stories that inspired the novel, to ground it and give it a familiar feel for the reader, the execution is simply too poor to be anything but a distraction from the tale itself. Full of awkward phrasing and repetitive descriptions the prose bears little real resemblance to the writings of Doyle or his contemporaries. Peppering the prose with indulgent word choices with very little in the way of context, really hampered my enjoyment of the novel. A simpler, less stylized prose would have served the novel much better in my opinion. As it stood, the barrier of the language used was almost too much to overcome.

The thing that kept me reading past my issues with the narrative voice, was the concepts Saintcrow used when constructing her alternate London (Londinium in the books). I was intrigued by many of the concepts, sorcerors working hand in hand with mentaths (though I was often reminded of Herbert's Dune, every time I saw the title), ancient dragons sharing the page with clockwork constructs that resemble powered armor or mecha, and a spirit that rules through choosing hosts from British royalty. While none of this is new, the particular mix that Saintcrow devises is full of its own particular flavor and begs for exploration. It's how these elements are explored that left me cold.

While I'm a big fan of writers who exemplify the "show don't tell" philosophy of storytelling, there are times when telling is the only option, and Saintcrow does precious little of it. The particulars of sorcery or Clare's abilities as a mentath are only loosely explained and rarely in the moment when the reader needs answers to better frame the current action. Magic is ever present in Londinium, but Saintcrow seems content to just throw term after term at the reader with zero exposition to frame it. I usually can overlook these things, being patient enough to wait for things to be made clear, but Saintcrow delivers these explanations and clarifications far too late, and I felt that some light exposition should definitely be present far earlier in the narrative.

There are other issues, such as the heroine of the story being seemingly irresistible to every male character she encounters despite the fact her personality is simultaneously cold and thorny for most of her interactions with her male cast mates. Clare's deductive capabilities are poorly used, with Saintcrow never showing the sequence of logic that leads to the mentath's leaps of understanding. Clare's big moments are often just a mess of dialogue that equates to magic hand waving, and is ultimately unsatisfying and make it harder to maintain my suspension of disbelief.

Despite all of the clever ideas and intriguing premises, I doubt I will give the Bannon and Clare series another go. The antiquated and poorly executed prose and unsatisfying level of exposition on critical concepts left me too cold, for even the most engaging of other aspects to keep me reading.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

And Blue Skies From Pain by Stina Leicht

Stina Leicht was one of the first authors that I reviewed and interviewed when starting the blog last summer. Since then she has been generous with her time, contributing not only our original interview, but also a guest post for the Spec. Fic. 101 project, and is currently pitching in on a top secret project that will be coming soon. Needless to say, I think Stina is a wonderful person, and one of the most compassionate, articulate, and intelligent people I've met since my journey as a reviewer began. I waited quite a while, almost a year before diving into her second novel, And Blue Skies From Pain, mainly because I didn't want to review two works from the same author too close together, and then my copy was shelved and I quite literally forgot I had it. I'm kicking myself for that decision now. And Blue Skies From Pain shows not only Leicht's considerable talents as a fantasist but incredible growth as an author as well. Fans of Charles De Lint and Emma Bull are probably well aware of Leicht's The Fey and the Fallen series, but if they aren't, they should waste no time in rectifying that fact.

The publisher's synopsis follows:
Northern Ireland, 1977. Liam Kelly is many things: a former wheelman for the IRA, a one-time political prisoner, the half-breed son of a mystic Fey warrior and a mortal woman, and a troubled young man literally haunted by the ghosts of his past. Liam has turned his back on his land’s bloody sectarian Troubles, but the war isn’t done with him yet, and neither is an older, more mythic battle between the Church and its demonic enemies, the Fallen.

After centuries of misunderstanding and conflict, the Church is on the verge of accepting that the Fey and the Fallen are not the same. But to achieve this historic truce, Liam must prove to the Church’s Inquisitors that he is not a demon, even as he wrestles with his own guilt and confusion, while being hunted by enemies both earthly and unworldly.

A shape-shifter by nature, Liam has a foot in two worlds and it’s driving him mad.

Sequels are frequently dicey affairs, especially when the first novel was so well received. The sophomore slump is a constant fear, but Leicht turns in a remarkable moving and hard charging return to the world of Liam Kelly. The pathos, unflinching realism, and eye for authenticity that permeated Of Blood and Honey are all in attendance here, but in this go around Leicht turns the volume up loud enough to rattle the windows.

Liam Kelly is a hard luck case, make no mistake about it. And from the opening pages, it's obvious that his suffering is just started. Convinced by Father Murphy and his father Bran, Liam agrees to be studied by the Catholic Church in an attempt to prove that the Fey are not one and the same as the demonic Fallen, and should not be targets of the militant arm of the Church as they have been for centuries. But prejudice and politics rear their ugly heads and once again Liam finds himself prisoner and in greater danger from these men of God than he would be out in the turbulent streets of Ireland during the Troubles.

In many ways, Leicht mirrors the real world political strife of 1970's Ireland through her explorations of the inner workings of the Catholic Church as well as the war between the Fey and the Fallen that takes place in the magical world the mystical beings inhabit. This mirroring tactic serves the narrative well, allowing for precious little info dumping and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions. Leicht never spoon feeds her readers, confident that they are intelligent enough to put the pieces together.

Liam is a pawn, caught up in a war he doesn't understand and as is his character he bucks the system at every turn. But it's not his conflicts with the Church or even the revolutionary army that he used to be a part of that really drive the narrative. Leicht wisely chooses to focus on the internal conflicts of her main character, not shying away from the damage done to young Liam's psyche by the merry-go-round of loss, grief and shame that has been his life since he was imprisoned in the infamous prison of Long Kesh. There's a lot more pain than blue skies for Liam, but more so than in the first installment, Liam finally decides to take a more active role in deciding his place in the world. He's still stubborn and youthfully foolish, refusing help when he so obviously needs it, but he's growing up, even if it is painful to watch. Leicht doesn't shy away from even Liam's darkest moments and that is the real genius of her writing. Liam is not a collection of words on the page, he is a person with failings, baggage, pains and joys. Through the uncompromising lens of the narrative we get to see them all.

There are more urban fantasy tropes in this volume, with Liam spending time with the Fey away from the real world and the Fallen are much more in evidence. But Leicht handles them with a remarkably light touch, never giving explanations or background the reader doesn't need. We may want it, but the information only serves reader curiosity rather than the story and Leicht wisely doesn't take the bait. The resulting novel has absolutely nothing in common with the throngs of run of the mill urban fantasy offers with a scantily clad woman with a sword, gun, or bullwhip on the cover. And Blue Skies From Pain would be more at home next to the latest Stephen King novel.

With the collapse of Night Shade books, I'm fearful that we may not see any more of The Fey and The Fallen, but am pleased that Leicht closes this novel in a natural place that while leaving readers wanting more allows the story a natural place to rest. Whether or not I ever see Liam Kelly again or not, I will continue to follow Leicht's career with great interest.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Joyland by Stephen King

Stephen King is something of a polarizing figure in literary circles. He's viewed as either a hack or a genius, depending on your degree of literary snobbery. But what no one can dispute is that King sells books, having become such a mainstay of the market that he might as well be his own genre. In his latest outing, King proves once again why throngs of people continue reading his books year after year, volume after volume. Joyland is King doing what he does best, telling a tale full of human experience, a dash of the otherworldly, and a heaping helping of nostalgia all told through the eyes of an everyman that has something in common with us all.

It's 1973, Devin Jones is a twenty one year old virgin with literary aspirations who decides to take a summer job at Joyland, a fading amusement park that is more carnival than theme park. During this summer adventure, Devin experiences his first true taste of heart break, makes friends that will last him for the rest of their lives, and finds himself compelled to solve the mystery of the ghost of a young woman murdered inside the House of Horror, years ago. Of course, even with the most straight forward of King stories there is far more to it than that. King skillfully mines his own tropes with a mastery gained from a long career to deliver this achingly familiar tale of first loves, friendship, loss, healing and the slow creep of time that none of us can escape.

Joyland is told entirely from Devin's point of view, but only after many years have gone by. This is a common enough trick for King, one that he combines with another familiar element; using a writer as his narrator. There are other tropes in play here, a fortune teller that actually has a touch of  "the sight", a dying child with similar abilities, even the seaside small town and amusement park has shown up in King's novels. But none of that matters. King isn't trying to sell you something new, he knows that's a 'butcher's game'. He's shilling what his fans know and love. Joyland is a coming of age story in the same vein as some his most enduring of tales. Fans of The Body, Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption, and The Green Mile will find much to love in Devin Jones journey from boy to almost man, and his reflections on the summer where everything changed.

Despite the throwback pulp cover and the promise of a noir crime tale, Joyland is much more than what it appears. While the murder mystery element is well handled, with a few red herrings and a satisfying final confrontation between Devin and the killer, the real draw of the novel is Devin's journey to manhood and his ruminations on the lessons he learns along the way. The ghost story and other otherworldly elements are really only present to flavor and compliment Devin's tale.

And what a tale it is. I was left wanting more time with Devin and the friends he made while working at Joyland. In under three hundred pages, King once again crafted a cast of characters that I have every intention to returning to again and again and a novel that deserves a spot besides the most popular and well received of his staggering contribution to popular and meaningful fiction.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Interview with Zachary Jernigan

I have a confession to make. For such a small novel (less than 300 pages), No Return was an absolute chore to read. It wasn't that I didn't identify with the characters, the setting, or the plot. But at points I felt that I needed to force myself to turn just one more page, for reasons that I couldn't articulate. But if I could slog through the utter dreck and blatant cultural appropriation of Stormdancer, I felt that I owed Jernigan my attention through the end of the novel, so I soldiered on. Somewhere in the last third of the novel, things got easier and the pages turned quicker, though not at my usual rapid pace. But I started enjoying it more and more. Then I wrote my review and realized that I liked No Return a lot more than I'd realized. Then I did this interview and realized the reason I'd plodded through the earlier sections of the novel. I was absorbing the dense philosophical questions peppered throughout the novel. I can honestly say it has been a rare book that's made me think this much. As a result, this interview is my absolute favorite of the ones I have been privileged to take part in. Enjoy.

52 Reviews: No Return is a complex mash up of sci fi and fantasy elements with gods, ghosts, monks, space faring mages, clockwork men, and more. Was this smorgasbord intentional or did certain elements just fall into place during the writing process? If so, can you give me an example? 

Zachary Jernigan: Well, that's a tough question to answer, kind of like when someone asks if you're a pantser or a plotter (to which the answer is "both").

I certainly planned on putting most of those elements in there from the get-go, but a few took me by surprise, which was awesome. Discovering new narrative elements is one the rare joys of writing. (I
do mean rare, by the way. Writing is not a hobby I enjoy, but a sort of activity I feel compelled to do for my health, like exercising – that is, if I exercised…) It’s such a thrill to feel a new idea taking root, growing up from your subconscious.

The first example that comes to mind in this regard is Fyra, Churls’s daughter. I knew that Churls had a daughter –largely because, unrepentant geek that I am, I’d made character profile sheets like I was playing the D&D campaign to end all D&D campaigns – but I hadn’t planned on her having anything to do with the narrative, much less be a ghost who plays a fairly active role. Ultimately, fleshing out her relationship with Churls turned out to be one of the most rewarding things about writing the novel.

52 Reviews: One of the themes of No Return seems to be an escape from poor choices or traumas from the past. Churls, Vedas and to a lesser extent Berun are fleeing something in the past. While I don't think this theme is the most prevalent of the novel, it certainly is universal. Did you intentionally build in this commonality in to the trio to make their eventual bonds more believable? 

Zachary Jernigan: This theme was certainly less planned than the rest of the novel, but in retrospect it was probably inevitable. I'm intimately acquainted with making mistakes (as are we all) and the deleterious effects of feeling too much guilt for having made those mistakes.

A lot of this has to do with my upbringing (again, a universal). My parents converted to Mormonism when I was barely out of diapers (I'll let you guess when that was) and I left the church when I was in my late teens. This indoctrination into a faith for the better part of my developmental years, followed by the rejection of that same faith during a very tumultuous time in my life, set me up in many ways to live a life of feeling conflicted over the past.

Though we are as alike in personality (and appearance) as could be, Vedas is the character in NO RETURN that most closely mirrors this conflicted feeling. I think it's fairly obvious on analysis that he is a stand-in for the author -- though his guilt is more warranted, I'd like to think. Like me, he wants to communicate his feelings and thus exorcise them. He wants to know he is a good person and begin to act
and feel in accordance with his morals.

The companions I created for him, Churls and Manshep, are there in great part to help him come to terms with himself. Of course, they are also characters in their own right -- characters that I, in all honesty, grew to like a great deal more than Vedas -- and therefore have their own concerns, which are often complementary to Vedas. My hope is that their bonds seem more real because of this shared bond between them, but it's unlikely that I was so calculating in my desire. I'm not known for my great forethought.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite aspects of your writing is the dichotomy of how you handle violence and sex. It's rate for me to find myself so simultaneously discomforted and enthralled. What informs your handling of these two topics in such a way that they become almost reflections of each other? 

Zachary Jernigan: Thanks! Being discomforted and enthralled is a good place to be, in a lot of ways. I definitely did shoot for that co-mingling of emotions in NO RETURN, so it's nice to hear when I achieve the effect for a reader. And while I wasn't really aware that I handled the topics of sex and violence in a way that causes them to reflect one another, I'm certainly happy to hear that I did -- though it does cause me to
scramble for an explanation as to how I achieved an effect I just learned about.

Taking a stab at it, I'd say it has something to do with how I (and by extension, the theoretical reader that sits on my shoulder ) respond to such scenes. If written with some energy, depictions of both
violence and sex can make your heart race and your face crease in a wince. Both are visceral, basically, an appeal to the baser of our urges. This isn't to say that they hold any less intellectual value than other scenes or expositions, of course, but at their best they are felt more on a gut level.

I guess that it simply makes sense to me to pair one with the other. While I don't think in very clinical terms while I'm writing, I think a lot of positive effect can be achieved by arranging fiction into "set pieces" that both balance the story and propel it forward. I don't want tame fiction, and thus sex and violence seem like good poles from which to hang a narrative.

Obviously, I can't expect everyone to go along with that ride. For one, I don't kid myself that I'm a good enough writer to convince everyone to go along with my madness. For two, I know that many people
don't want to read so much sex and violence, even if it is written well. And that's cool with me; I know that my book isn't for everyone.

52 Reviews: One cannot talk about the convergence of sex and violence without mentioning the rape scene between Pol and Ebn. I read in another interview that this scene was the bit of the novel that you were most proud. Can you talk a little more about that? Was the choice to have a female character as the aggressor a conscious reversal of expectations? Or a more subtle form of commentary about rape culture perhaps?

Zachary Jernigan: I am very proud of that scene, yes, though I no longer know if it's what I'm proudest of. Time and introspection changes a lot of things, and after a recent conversation with my younger brother I'm seeing other parts of the book in a more favorable light than I once did.

Regardless, the scene you refer to is the one I struggled with the most, and that says something (to me, anyway). Saying it was hard to write is an understatement: my ex-girlfriend claims I was a wreck during the week it took to get it to paper.  I'd never attempted to write a rape scene; I don't like dwelling on such thoughts. (Point in fact, not less than a year before I'd made an argument with a friend of mine as to why rape scenes are never necessary in fiction. A lot can change in a year, I guess.) Even when such content is treated maturely -- or perhaps especially when it's treated maturely -- it proves a trial to even read, much less write.

As to why I wrote it... Well, it'd be rather pompous of me to say it had to be written, wouldn't it? And yet a great many scenes feel that way when I look back on them. Despite being pretty happy with the way her chapters came out, Ebn ultimately morphed into the character I liked least. She's contemptible, dangerous criminal, as her ultimate action proves. I really didn't intend any commentary by having a female rape a man -- horribly, she just seemed like the kind of individual to take advantage of someone that way.

On a broader level, however, I can't deny that putting a rape scene in my book was a calculated move, a response to what I see as a problematic (and rather long-lasting) trend in genre fiction. I don't suppose it's a revelation to anyone to point out how prevalent rape is in a certain variety of fantasy fiction. Many of the scenes in these books are, in my opinion, very lazy character building -- not to mention icky on a variety of levels. I wanted a rape scene that felt natural to the character, a result of forces I'd described affecting her. Also, I wanted it to not be salacious -- I wanted it brutal and uncompromising.

Who knows if I got any of that right? Not me. But I hope I did.

52 Reviews: Brutal and uncompromising are both words I would also use to describe your action sequences, especially the fight scenes. As a martial arts instructor, I had pictures of a fantasy Bloodsport when I read about the tournament that is in many ways the climax of the novel. And, boy was I wrong! The sparse brutality and matter of fact-ness of those scenes impressed me far more than the expected cinematic set-pieces ever could have. What was your process in deciding to fore go the sweeping action for a more somber and stark character driven approach?

Zachary Jernigan: Those words are appreciated: I'm glad that method impressed you more than the expected approach, which I very consciously avoided. I'm tired of the extended fight scene, frankly, for both narrative reasons as well as logistical reasons. Two evenly matched people who are trying to incapacitate (or kill) one another are not interesting in extending the fight. They want it over. I want the reader to feel what an actual combatant in that situation likely feels, not what popular entertainment informs them a combatant feels.

Of course, it may seem funny to talk about realism in a novel like mine, but I sincerely believe that in order for the reader to suspend disbelief enough to buy the overall lie of a wild story (complete with alchemical astronauts and a dude made of brass marbles) they must first be able to believe in the reality for the characters. To extend a fight scene into an unrealistic spectacle makes it more likely that the reader will take other factors less seriously.

A lot of people have responded that they wanted these scenes extended. I understand that -- I anticipated it -- but I couldn't make myself do it. No matter how uppity such a statement sounds, it would be a betrayal of my ethic.

52 Reviews: Based on what I've read in other interviews it's fairly obvious that Vedas serves as a kind of mirror for your own, for lack of a better yet, spiritual journey. Was this aspect of your own life experience intended to be a way to work through that process again in a fictional sandbox or was it designed as a method to share your observations on religion and its overall impact on both the worshiper and on society as a whole?

Zachary Jernigan: His journey does definitely mirror my own, though it's not a one-for-one comparison. I went from being a (rather casual) believer in the religion of my parents to being a (rather outspoken) critic of religion, whereas Vedas is fighting a very specific battle against a world gone mad as a result of knowing that "god" exists. The weird thing is that while I intended his narrative to parallel my own I certainly didn't know how much it would illuminate my own experiences. I've called writing No Return an exorcism of sorts, and it's true: there are many features of my upbringing -- which, lest you think otherwise, was very loving and supportive (my mom's my biggest fan) -- that I hadn't quite internalized until I wrote the book.

What conclusions, in the main, did I draw?

Well, I realized how unhealthy it was for me to focus so much on physical perfection and immortality. I'm not close to perfect in any of the metrics that one might use to judge perfection, and I'm sure as hell not going to live forever, yet for years I've fantasized about an undying body. If you know anything of Mormon theology, it's not difficult to understand where this obsession with becoming a godlike creature comes from. Though Vedas symbolizes this a bit -- specifically where he worries over the loss of his muscle mass on the long road from Golna to Danoor -- it is the god Adrash that really allowed me to explore the theme.

Second, I realized how much anger I felt at the abuse of power that occurs in religious institutions, at how often those in leadership positions (which can often simply be the heads of families) bend people toward violence and intolerance. This is no news to anyone, of course, but writing the novel helped me understand that it isn't faith itself that really grinds my gears (though faith does indeed bother me); it is the use of myths (or I should say what I consider to be myths) to coerce others away from compassion. 

Vedas's realization is ultimately humanistic, as opposed to a complete indictment of faith.

Now, do I intend for all readers to take this away when they read the book? No, of course not. Hell, I didn't write enough in the book to lead people to those conclusions. At least I hope I didn't. I don't want to write a tract. Though I consider myself to have written Moral Fiction, in that the characters (well, the admirable ones) question their actions and seek to be better people, I'd hate the thought that a religious or spiritual person would think that I'm writing a book to denounce their beliefs.

52 Reviews: It recently struck me that there are perhaps three analogs to "god" in No Return. We have Adrash, the aloof and capricious force of destruction observing from his stellar perch, Berun's creator who exacts a terrible control over his constructed creation, and Fyra, a childish being of unknown power trying her best to do the right thing. It's pretty obvious which god like being most readers would prefer. Was this trinity of "pseudo deities" meant to reflect the many ways we are compelled and controlled by what we choose to believe in?

Zachary Jernigan: Good Lord, you know I never thought of it that way! This is why being interviewed is so cool: I get to see how another person looks at something I did and then evaluate that view for myself. And now that you've pointed it out, there definitely is validity in that interpretation. I did intend for each of those characters -- Adrash, Ortur Omali, and Fyra -- to act as immensely powerful coercive elements (physically, intellectually, and emotionally). They exert their near-inexorable influence, but each can conceivably be defeated. 

They are not, in other words, all-powerful -- as in the Christian or Muslim conceptions of God -- and resemble more the gods of the Indian or Greek pantheon. (Of course, I'm being somewhat liberal with my terms here, especially when referring to the Indian "pantheon," but hopefully the point is clear.) What's odd is that in writing No Return I consciously chose to draw from my religious studies education (I received a BA in the subject in 2005) and my reading of authors like Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany -- authors who, early in their careers, attempted to expand upon and create their own mythologies by way of fiction -- and yet I don't think I realized until just now how greatly those features influenced me.

This is the way with writing fiction, I've found. There's just as much blindness in what the author does as there is awareness.
As to the whether or not the "trinity of pseudo deities" (a term which I'll steal, thank you very much!) are meant to reflect how we are compelled and controlled by our beliefs... I think it's a fair assumption to say that, yes, they do symbolize that to a extent. Nonetheless, I think it'd be a far more comprehensive statement to say that they reflect how our families exert their influence. Parental figures, in particular, are an unavoidable force of influence -- even when they are wise and loving as my parents were, it can be a struggle to define yourself as an independent being.

52 Reviews: Even with Vedas being an intended analog for the author, and the perhaps unintentional main protagonist, I found myself more drawn to Churls as the more relatable character. I've read that you also found this to be true in the course of writing. What can you tell us about writing compelling and strong female characters, while there is such a ground swell of criticism regarding equal and honest portrayals of women in genre fiction? 

Zachary Jernigan: I'm really glad to hear that, because I'm singularly proud of the way I wrote Churls. I go back and forth in my estimation of my own work, but I rarely feel that positive about any element for long -- that is, except Churls. She's the one constant, and it's validation of a very satisfying kind when I hear that her character struck a positive chord. A great part of the reason for this is the groundswell of criticism you refer to.

It's justified to levy the finger at genre publishing, which I do think remains a Boys' Club in many ways. The reasons for this are many, of course, but I think it's got a lot to do with how quickly the reading demographic has changed. I don't know if you've noticed, but female geeks are now at the forefront of geekdom, asserting themselves and being generally awesome, and that has produced a defensive response from the Old Guard. (The recent SFWA controversy is one of the signs of this.) The Old Guard -- which is not solely represented by Old White Guys (TM), by the way; it is more a mindset led by a demographic -- still exerts a powerful psychic influence on the publishing world.

The result is that it's still very possible to get away with writing Women-By-Numbers. And that has to change. The genre community should become so used to realistic representations of women that they throw down any book that panders to ridiculous and harmfully gendered stereotypes.

For me -- especially me, a Privileged White Dude (TM) through and through -- that means that I can't rest on my laurels. I have to try to do justice to what I observe in life: that women, 90% of the time or more, are indistinguishable from men. They are regular, the complete opposite of abnormal, in no way an OTHER, and should be written from that standpoint. 

I'm not saying, just to be thorough, that there is nothing unique in being female. Churls is a mother, a thing a man cannot by biology (and etymology) be, and I let this fact inform/gender her narrative, because motherhood too is part of life. In most ways, however, I feel like I could have changed her sex or gender-identity after the writing of the novel and still ended up with a believable character.

At least, I hope that's the case.

52 Reviews: Speaking of Privileged White Dudes, I count a supreme lack of them in No Return. Was this a statement you were trying to make, an exercise in writing the other, or sheer random happenstance? Reading an electronic copy of the novel left me with no biographical info, so I just assumed you couldn't possibly be a Privileged White Dude. My surprise upon realizing that you had fooled me so deftly actually added to my esteem for the story. Is simply writing all characters from the standpoint of "they're all just people" really as simple as you made it look? 

Zachary Jernigan: Ha! I take that as a compliment, but no, I'm as privileged as they come. Though my skin tone and features sometimes confuse people (I've been mistaken for Arab on more than a few occasions, and many people just think I'm a confusing mishmash of races), I'm quite white. My family's firmly middle-upper-middle-class. My parents paid for college, and they helped me buy a car when I was sixteen. I'm a born-and-bred US citizen. It doesn't get much more privileged than me.

Of course, my parents were not raised in well-off families -- not by a long shot. When he was a child, for a brief period my father's family lived in a two bedroom house with seventeen people. They picked cotton and took baths in tubs outside. My mother's family was only slightly more privileged. Their humble beginnings, I hope, have informed my own development in positive ways, keeping me from taking everything for granted. I know they made me less materialistic, which in turn informs my fiction.

As for the first question, I am making a statement, sure (BORING RICH PEOPLE ARE BORING AND WE SHOULD STOP WRITING ABOUT THEM SO MUCH or something), but it's got more to do with lack of interest than anything else. I have little desire to write at length about the ultra-privileged. It's depressing to me, and I suppose some of the reason for that is because I've already lived that life. I know the deleterious effect it has on a person's character to be born into such an advantageous situation.
As for the second question -- I do think writing all characters from the standpoint of "they're all just people" is simple. In theory, anyway. The world is so vastly complex, and everything about writing is very hard for me, so it's tough to separate the act of writing from my intent. I do now, at the very least, that attempting to write "as the Other" is likely to blow up in my face. It's got to begin with the realization that most of my concerns are universal, mirrored in others.

Sure, I run the risk of making my characters too white, too bourgeoisie... but I'd rather do that than exotify anyone.

52 Reviews: Now for my last question. It's no secret that your personal stance on religion and spirituality is a negative one. Those views are  easily apparent in the novel, though I never found them on the least bit inflammatory or preachy. However I felt that Fyra's very presence in the story, especially considering her pivotal role, may hint at a deeply buried hope that perhaps there is something larger than us that is there to help rather than influence and coerce. Was that just a bone thrown into the stew for balance or is this nothing more than a subtle coincidence of interpretation?

Zachary Jernigan: Wow. Not to be a public kiss up, but that's a brilliant question. I've noticed my answers have gotten longer over time, and this one will likely be the lengthiest one.

I'm glad you found those views to not be inflammatory or preachy. I didn't intend the book as a denouncement of religion, but given my anti-religious stance (which I should clarify is not an anti-religious people stance; I am a humanist and thus value all people in their expressions of rationality and compassion) I can understand how it may read as one. I can only control my intentions, not the way it actually reads to the majority of readers.

Fyra may indeed represent -- in fact, I can go so far as to say she very probably does represent -- a hope that there is a helping hand out there. I won't deny, to anyone, that I'm hoping for a continuation of this life. I can't do as Richard Dawkins advises and be "thankful that I have a life, and forsake my vain and presumptuous desire for a second one." It may be the thing that keeps me from being an unqualified atheist (I self-identify as an agnostic atheist, in order to reflect my refusal to state my beliefs as fact), but it is what it is: I want there to be a benevolent presence.

Do I believe it likely that there is a benevolent presence watching over us? No, not by a long shot. But I love my family. I love life, despite years of experiencing my own OCD-related depression. I want all of our lives -- everyone's, even the evil folks' -- to go on and on and on, so that we may continue progressing as individuals. So that we can be a species in ever greater communion.

And so... Fyra. Yes. The more I write about it, the surer I am that you've struck gold on this one, Matt. She is an ambassador of the dead, who in the world of my novel live on after life. She fights her own people (the dead) in order to talk to her mother, to continue having that link to the physical world -- to experience love. There is a message in this, if only for me. There is a knowledge that love dies that I must overcome -- it is an awareness I can't escape, and so I write about it. 

I remember having a nightmare, many years ago, in which I died saving my little brother. I returned to my family and tried in vain to talk to them. I watched them crying over my death, and I was unable to do anything. I think, in the midst of that dream, I felt more sadness than I've ever experienced. I can't cope with thoughts such as those, of making my family sad, and so I want to live forever, in order to keep expressing my love and support. They need me, just like I need them.

Fyra, like every other character in the novel, is me. ... Gooodness, I hope that statement makes sense to whoever's reading this. Sometimes my own thoughts on what motivates me are unformed until I express them.

Anyway, thank you immensely for the opportunity to answer these questions, Matt! I hope you enjoyed this interaction as much as I did.

To conclude, I'd like to thank Zach for doing this interview. He was an absolute joy to correspond with and I look forward to following his career in the future and I'm fairly certain you'll see him at 52 Reviews in the future. If you haven't read No Return yet, do yourself a favor and do so. You won't be disappointed.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

My love for Chuck Wendig is a new-fangled thing. It sparkles like a freshly minted coin. On the heels of reading his excellent new novel The Blue Blazes and the blast I had interviewing him not long after the review went live, I snatched up a copy of the first of the Miriam Black novels, Blackbirds with a promise to not crack the cover until I'd whittled down the books waiting in my Netgalley account. But Miriam Black just kept staring at me from the nightstand, whispering "You know you want to.." in my ear, night after night. I did a fine job of resisting until one night about a week ago, when I decided I'd just take a look at the first chapter. Big mistake. Miriam Black had me hooked by the lip by page five.


Miriam Black knows when you will die.

She’s foreseen hundreds of car crashes, heart attacks, strokes, and suicides.
But when Miriam hitches a ride with Louis Darling and shakes his hand, she sees that in thirty days Louis will be murdered while he calls her name. Louis will die because he met her, and she will be the next victim.
No matter what she does she can’t save Louis. But if she wants to stay alive, she’ll have to try.

Blackbirds is vintage Wendig in every way. The novel feels like the bastard child of Tarantino's True Romance and Stephen King's The Dead Zone; an unflinchingly brutal road trip, disturbingly familiar underneath its otherworldly strangeness. This is a lushly profane novel with characters careening off one another in a twisted violent ballet of their own violence and vulnerability. If you came to the table thinking this is something akin to Mercy Thompson or Sookie Stackhouse, you'd better step slowly away from Miriam Black and try not to make any sudden movements. Psychic talent aside, Black has as much in common with Sookie Stackhouse as Amy Winehouse has with Annette Funicello. And that's the twisted genius of Wendig at work.

Miriam Black carries the novel on her weary cocksure shoulders, swearing like a sailor as she chain smokes her way through the narrative. Describing Wendig's protagonist in such simple terms may give a false impression though. Black is far more than that caricature allows. With an upbringing eerily similar to that of Carrie White, from the King novel that bears her name, Miriam reacts to series of traumas that leave her with a burden that removes the comfort of human touch and saddles her with a knowledge that is certain to haunt her. Knowing the intimate moments of death of any person she touches changes her into a tragic hero, a broken and defiant figure trying desperately to survive in a world filled with solitude and the ever present pall of mortality. And it's that vulnerability and Black's defiance of her 'curse' that makes her such a compelling protagonist, dragging readers in her wake full of hope that she'll find away to cope with the brutality of her circumstances with nothing more than bad attitude and a flea market butterfly knife.

Wendig does an excellent job grounding Miriam's tale with an atmosphere perfectly suited to the particular brand of story he's shilling. Miriam ricochets along a snarled chain of abandoned warehouses, grimy roadside hotels, murder scenes, and out of the way kill rooms. There is a stark discomforting familiarity to these locales, like a trash choked gutter best turned away from lest you stare too long and see something moving in the offal. And the other characters that populate this landscape are just as disconcerting, broken, damaged and often deranged, willing victims of their own psychology. No character is left without pathos, even if it's only by the smallest scrap. Some are horrifyng in their brutality, others heartbreakingly sympathetic as they are swept along in the crazed current of Miriam Black, twenty-something harbinger of death. I dare to say that at least one of these characters will live in the mind of any reader long after the final page is turned.

The action sequences in Blackbirds are a far cry from the bombastic gleeful slug fests that I loved so much in The Blue Blazes, but Wendig still knocks it out of the park in a completely different direction. The violence is matter of fact, unapologetic, and sickeningly brutal in the way only the mentally damaged and dispossessed can be. There is a loosening of social mores and inhibitions in the trailer park, truck stop, and roadkill strewn highways of the Miriam's stomping grounds, and it permeates the easy violence with it's casual indifference until Wendig turns up the volume and then the horror of human cruelty stuns you like an axe handle between the eyes.

In conclusion, I cannot recommend Blackbirds enough. Fans of The Blue Blazes will find just enough of Wendig's unmistakable voice to feel comfortable while ride along with the unforgettable Miriam Black as she smokes, curses and rages her way into the dark and warm center of their hearts. I'll be keeping my newly acquired copy of Mockingbird in a drawer so I can get some other reading done.