D’Arc, by Robert Repino

D'Arc, by Robert Repino

This sequel to Mort(e) picks up right where we left off and then propels itself forward. It feels like a few different genre novels married to each other: A western, a murder mystery, and an action/adventure story. I’ve always enjoyed that approach in speculative fiction. You take something fantasy or scifi, and write a story in that world from a different genre.

I thought it did a great job building up a mystery, while expanding on the mythology and worldbuilding quite nicely. In some ways it’s also a coming of age novel; a moral tale about choosing your own path, and writing your own story.

Robert RepinoRepino’s writing is extremely clean and tight. It reads effortlessly, and never gets in the way. Simple declarative sentences lay it all out for the reader. When the story really starts to get going, it’s almost like the writing entirely disappears, and you’re just… in it. I have to applaud him for that. I’m not even sure how one accomplishes something like that, but it’s impressive.

There was some fun closure for secondary and tertiary characters from the first novel, particularly Wawa. I really loved her arc in this. She was one of the better developed characters in Mort(e), so it was nice to see her get something good to chew on again in this one.

The last third, and the conclusion to the story didn’t really work for me. Early on there were a few big questions that were set up, and a great antagonist built through his own POV chapters, but those questions were mostly sidestepped, and the antagonist just fizzled out. I suspect that there will be more novels that may resolve my questions, and in fact, there was quite a bit of setup for what may be coming next. I have to admit it sounds very interesting. The world really is ripe for more stories.

All in all, it’s a fun continuation of the story that began in Mort(e), but it feels much less it’s own thing, and more an interstitial chapter in a continuing saga; something that needed to happen before the next part can occur. I’m still very excited for that next part though!

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

Little Sister, by Barbara Gowdy

“Get your own head straight before hanging around in someone else’s.”

Little Sister has a setup that hooked me in the first handful of pages. There is a well crafted, subtle symmetry at play in this novel. The story is teeming with thematic intrigue, and these themes mirror each other in creative ways as the story progresses. You could describe it as a feedback loop of sorts; the matching elements bouncing off each other and informing different areas of the story, creating a prism that resolves as it all comes together. It’s masterfully done. I’d call it a summer literary thriller with a touch of magical realism, and a lot of substance.

Our protagonist is a woman who never really got a chance to know herself. She’s been drifting through her own life as a passenger; never really taking an active role. She’s stuck in a lot of what I would call soft-traps: caring for her mentally deteriorating mother, running the family business: a movie theater that screens classic films, and then there’s her adequate (but never exciting) romantic relationship that she settled for after a string of bad ones. She has large choices to make, but she can’t see them yet. I really think it’s a novel about escapism, the many different ways we deal with and process grief, and what we can learn from each other if we could only walk a mile in their shoes. Reading between the lines a little, I also think it’s about how important fiction can be for our personal development.

Barbara GowdyInstead of escaping into reality tv, soap operas, or novels, Rose’s escape is the main fantastical element of the story: during a string of summer thunderstorms she loses consciousness and finds herself inhabiting a different body. She has no control over this body, but feels and experiences everything that it does. These “episodes” as she calls them, have the feel of a mythological God toying with its creations. The woman she inhabits lives a much more exciting, soap operatic life, full of ups and downs that Rose has never experienced in her own life. She finds herself enraptured and confused, unsure whether she’s dreaming, losing her mind like her mother, or if something truly fantastic is happening. She becomes very invested in this other person, and begins a quest to confirm or deny this mystery woman’s existence, and regain her sanity.

In addition to the main narrative, there is a secondary story that unfurls in Rose’s past, involving her sister and a tragic accident she feels partly responsible for.

The prose is sober and clear; the story utterly captivating, and the characters well developed. There is a general sense of unease, making it suspenseful in the same way a good horror movie can be, without ever fully submerging into the horrific. For me, some of the main themes in Little Sister are reminiscent of the motifs of duality present in the best Christopher Priest novels, and Gowdy writes dialogue like a more reasonable DeLillo in his prime.

Little Sister is out May 23rd from Tin House Books.

 

 

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

The Somnambulist’s Dreams, by Lars Boye Jerlach

There is something tragically romantic about lighthouses: The structures themselves stand watchful and solitary, a beacon of warning and assistance to those at sea. The broad scope of protection proffered by one individual toward so many others. It makes the profession of lighthouse keeper appear selfless, but in my mind it’s more symbiotic than that. I imagine a lighthouse keeper as someone who strives to be useful, but requires isolation the way others require companionship. Introspective in a world that forces continual socialization; the job facilitating a way for them to achieve fulfillment while maintaining the functional distance they inherently need. I imagine them as superheroes in a way. Working alone in the dark for the betterment of humanity, but if they’re really being truthful, they do it for themselves more than anyone else. I’m obviously taking a lot of liberties here, but it’s how I’ve always imagined that world and those who inhabit it.

As far as I understand, modernity has mostly removed the need for lighthouse keepers, relocating that profession to an era of the past. This only adds another layer to the romance and tragedy for me. Basically, this is a long winded explanation of why I am inexorably drawn to stories featuring lighthouses, or lighthouse keepers, and what a story this one was.

We have two main points of view nested within each other: A third person narrative of a lighthouse keeper on a particularly cold night, reading a parcels worth of letters written by his somnambulant predecessor, each detailing a dream experienced during his sleepwalk events. These personal accounts are where the bulk of the story is contained, and in my opinion, where it really shines. The third person interludes between the dreams felt unnecessarily repetitive to me. I wanted something more introspective from these sections. However, I do believe the context in which they reside would change on a subsequent reading, so that may be a rash judgement on my part as a reader.

Lars Boye JerlachThe story itself has some strong elements of Paul Auster’s style of storytelling. Mystery upon mystery. Or maybe it’s more along the lines of Haruki Murakami’s fantastical realism. In his dreams, the somnambulist momentarily inhabits the bodies of others (or sometimes Poe’s raven Nevermore). Some of these characters are historically known to him, others are known to the lighthouse keeper reading the somnambulist’s accounts, and others still, aren’t known by either (but should be apparent to the reader of this book itself). There are a few fun surprises here as you become aware of who is being inhabited, and the way that these characters relate to each other. The somnambulist is unsure whether his dreams are genuine experiences, premonitions, or merely dreams. It’s really a clever story structure; each additional dream sequence adding to the mystery and intrigue as the story unfolds toward its conclusion.

The writing style took some time to become accustomed to. The whole book is double line spaced, there are almost no first line indentations, and the author has an on-again/off-again relationship with paragraphs. It feels like a stylistic choice, and I’ve seen it before, but I’m still unsure of the reasoning.

The Somnambulist’s Dreams is postmodern literature with a capital P. Which I’m all about, but have to be in the right kind of mood to properly enjoy. When it comes to postmodernist writing like this that is more ontological, paradoxical, etc, I find it often helps me if I know that that is what I’m getting myself into from the start. The gorgeous cover artwork and synopsis communicate this quite nicely. Every thread may not pull itself together into a pretty little bow in the end, but that’s part of the appeal; it’s the journey, not so much the destination with this kind of novel. I enjoyed this for the type of presence it cultivated while being read, not so much the definitive conclusion or ending that a traditional story builds toward. That’s not to say that The Somnambulist’s Dreams doesn’t conclude in a satisfactory way, it does. It’s just that it’s a bit of paradox in itself, which to me can be infinitely more interesting when it’s handled with grace like this.

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

The Dispatcher, by John Scalzi

The Dispatcher is a tightly constructed urban fantasy mystery novella, set in a world with only one difference to our own. When someone dies, their body disappears, and they re-materialize back at their house alive and well. Most of the time. This sets up a fantastically unique murder mystery, with a character and setting that I really hope he returns to. Some elements of this reminded me a little of Altered Carbon. This could be a long running series, and I would definitely read it all.

John ScalziUsually I’m not into urban fantasy at all, but this one is quite different. Most people hear Urban Fantasy and think “Oh, that’s like werewolves and vampires and magic and stuff right?” which is an easy assumption to make since so much of it is. It’s important to remember that this isn’t necessarily true though, and it most definitely isn’t the case with The Dispatcher. “Urban Fantasy” means only two things: 1. The story is set in a contemporary time 2. The impossible happens. That’s all. Everything else is just how the writer wants to use those restrictions to tell a good story. Something which Scalzi has done a terrific job of here.

I listened to the audiobook version of this last year when it was free on Audible, and more recently read the physical book published by Subterranean press. In addition to the story, there are several illustrations of important scenes, and the quality of the artwork is gorgeous. There is a sort of hyper-realism to the illustrations that’s difficult to describe, but it works very well.

The Dispatcher is available from Subterranean Press as both a clothbound hardcover and a signed leatherbound hardcover.

The Hidden Dimensions, by Alex Lanier

The Hidden Dimensions, by Alex Lanier

This one was a trip, like a flu induced fever dream. Storywise think early David Cronenberg body horror + Alice in Wonderland + Saga + The Boondocks + 70s Sexploitation. I’m very surprised this isn’t being published by Image Comics, who are currently in the middle of a creator-owned renaissance of adult themed, fantastic storytelling. This would fit right in over there.

The story starts out with some great Science Fiction intrigue and escalates as the characters learn the darker truth lurking beneath the surface of their hometown and their own personal past. They find themselves in stranger and stranger situations while journeying through realms of reality previously unknown to them. There are some cleverly subtle undertones that highlight the kind of marginalization / abuse of populations that can occur when there’s too much power in the hands of too few. I’d recommend this for fans of Saga, Sex Criminals, and adult themed cosmic horror narratives. I don’t want to be too specific with story details, because that would ruin half the fun of discovering this for yourselves. But be warned, it is definitely a Mature comic with a capital M.

The dialogue can be a little clunky at times, and the characters are fairly one dimensional (albeit, very imaginative and unique) but this does read like the first several issues of an ongoing story, so there’s room for them to grow and become more fully realized as the story continues.

Lanier’s artwork is the real standout here. It’s fantastic, grotesque and disturbing at times, and done in a truly unique style that I haven’t seen before. It modulates effortlessly between hyperreal and a colorful caricaturesque style. I really love it. He plays with the framing a lot, rendering scenes using angles that are so beautifully cinematic, they feel like they’re drawn through virtual camera lenses. There is also a lot of work here that emphasizes what can only be done so well in the graphic novel medium.

The Hidden Dimensions can be previewed / purchased on Alex Lanier’s site here.