January 2011

Colleen Mondor

bookslut in training

History Reloaded

I came to Jo Walton’s Among Others expecting to find something radically different from her impressive World War II alternate history series. Her new book, which “combines elements of autobiography with flights of imagination,” focuses on teenage Mori, who is coping with the loss of her twin sister, an escape from her half-mad mother, and enrollment in a boarding school at the behest of her long absent father who now has custody. In the tradition of boarding school stories, Mori is an outsider who struggles to make friends but veering sharply from expected plot lines, Walton’s protagonist is deeply in love with science fiction. She finds her home first in the school library and then, wonderfully, in a weekly SF book club in the local town. As readers immerse themselves in Walton’s appreciations of classic novels they understand Mori more and more, not only for her determination to remain her own person, but also the way she defies geek stereotypes. Her playful belief that she can see fairies seems like nothing more than a mild diversion from the main coming-of-age story but then the fairies start talking and Mori’s insistence that her mother is a witch seems far less fanciful. At that point, readers will start to reconsider all the questions about what happened to her sister, and wonder if maybe there isn’t something more going on here. This is a Jo Walton novel, after all.

The fantastical parts of Among Others are quite compelling, and making Mori’s mother a true monster (as opposed to just a horrible parent) ratchets up the tension in intriguing ways. But first and foremost, this is a book about reading, and not just any sort of reading, but deep reading. Mori is a bit like Rory Gilmore (if Rory worshiped at the altars of Le Guin and Tolkien) in that she thinks about what she reads not only while reading it, but forever after as well. Consider this bit on C. S. Lewis:

"Carpenter says in the Inklings book that Lewis meant Aslan to be Jesus. I can sort of see it, but all the same it feels like a betrayal. It feels like allegory. No wonder Tolkien was cross. I’d have been cross too. I also feel tricked, because I didn’t notice all this time. Sometimes I’m so stupid -- but Aslan was always so much himself. I don’t know what I think about Jesus, but I know what I think about Aslan."

As Mori navigates her new relationship with her father and his wealthy, controlling (and terribly stuffy) sisters, she still refuses to lose the members of her mother’s family who have always cared for her and the memories of her sister. Remaining true to herself and the people who love her requires she walk a difficult line while making new friends and engaging fully in the academic and social world around her. She doesn’t want to hide or disappear, she doesn’t want to deny the magic that has sustained her or the fairies who have been part of her life forever. She simply wants to be safe and alive and purely herself which any teenager (or former teenager) knows can be nearly impossible.  She also has serious ideas about just what this whole growing up thing means and the best way to go about it:

"If I have to have a book on how to overcome adversity give me Pollyanna over Judy Blume any day, though why anyone would read any of them when the world contains all this SF is beyond me. Even just within books written for children, you can learn way more about growing up and ethical behavior from Space Hostages or Citizens of the Galaxy."

How can you not love this kid? As much as she is “clever and odd,” as Cory Doctorow asserts in his cover blurb, she is also achingly, undeniably familiar to so many of us who navigated our teen years with as much fear as bravado. Maybe we didn’t have dangerous witches in our lives, but we know Mori’s fear and her despair and the way in which one thing, one beautiful wonderful thing, could hold us together. In her case it is a host of authors who carry her dreams and make her world beautiful -- make it worth surviving for another day. I do not know how much of Among Others is autobiographical, but I do know that Jo Walton has made herself a literary savior with this book. This is a gift thrown out the universe; just as surely as any lifeboat or preserver. SF fan or not, if you have ever felt lost, you will embrace this story, and fall hard for a writer who proves yet again her courage when it comes to the written word.

In a more conventional adventure, Cherie Priest continues to explore her Clockwork Century world with Dreadnought, which focuses on the cross-country journey of Civil War nurse Mercy Lynch. Mercy is traveling to see her long lost father but finds herself in the middle of the War, which includes a zombie-filled mystery to boot (no kidding) before she reaches him in Seattle. If that all sounds a bit outlandish, then really you need to read Priest’s earlier books, Boneshaker and Clementine, so you can set yourself firmly in an America that never was, filled with the sort of airships we wish had been invented, trains that pack a powerful wallop, as well as Pinkerton detectives, Texas Rangers and, of course, zombies -- but not the zombies you are used to, because these are zombies created by a gas released from a machine that tunneled underground in Boneshaker and turned the Pacific Northwest on its ear.

Mercy Lynch is a nurse in a war without end, and upon receiving devastating news, finds herself unwilling to deal with death any longer. Her decision to seek out her father takes her on a steampunk version of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, but with an airship, a boat, and a steam-driven train that is being pursed by the deadliest train the war has to offer. There are also a lot of questions ranging from “what dread disease is killing veterans” to “what happened to the missing Mexican soldiers” to “what is hidden under heavy guard on this blasted train.” None of these questions have good answers, though, and as much as Mercy would like to ignore them, she is not the “sit back and do nothing type,” and thus finds herself in the middle of the action with guns blazing and a determined glint in her eye. Mercy will get to Seattle come hell or high water, and Priest very nicely keeps her and her fellow passengers battling along the entire trip.

There is everything to like about Dreadnought from Mercy herself to Priest’s fresh yet familiar perspective on the war. The battle violence reads as right out of the history books, while the fictional techno flourishes keep things fun. This is an author at the top of her game and consistent in her dedication to making steampunk as much a part of the American landscape as its traditional Victorian London roots. Appealing on every level, the Clockwork Century titles are tailormade for teen readers and heartily recommended for light reading fans.

Frank Beddor took Alice's Adventures in Wonderland for a serious ride with his Looking Glass Wars series (see my review of the first book here), which has Alice Liddell as the very real princess of a parallel-world Wonderland, forced to go to war with her homicidal aunt, the Red Queen. The Mad Hatter is actually “Hatter M,” one of a long line of royal bodyguards who is sworn to keep “Princess Alyss” safe. In the first book, The Looking Glass Wars, Beddor explained how Hatter M and Alyss became separated in the events which led to her living in England and becoming the subject of Lewis Carroll’s novels. The urge to explore just what happened to Hatter while Alyss was struggling against life as a proper British young lady in Oxford brought Beddor together with some talented illustrators to create a comic book series, also called Hatter M. They are now gathered in three hardcover full-color volumes and they are gorgeous. The story is also harsh, gritty, steampunk, alt-history, alt-literary history (is such a thing possible?), genre-defying, and outrageously fun. Beddor channels everyone from Clint Eastwood to Artemus Gordon in the most recent volume, The Nature of Wonder, which sees Hatter crisscrossing the wild West in search of his missing charge. He also gets involved in the Civil War and the American Indian Wars, and reveals some seminal events from his own past. In the process he beats the tar out of some very bad people and throws his deadly hat with precise abandon in the direction of all sorts of villains. In the end he is a hero, again (which the reader is expecting), but a dark hero who embraces all of Wonderland’s contradictions.

I must confess a big part of why I enjoy Beddor’s work is that it is so difficult to persuade boys to read Alice. Right or wrong, the book is perceived primarily as a “girl book” (I blame Walt Disney for this), and so all that imagination and fun is overlooked by a bunch of kids that would otherwise love it. Beddor’s vision of Wonderland is very different from Carroll’s, and much more action-oriented, but it is also a lot more guy-friendly. With the graphic novels he increases the appeal. Hatter is a classic hero in the western style -- loyal, conflicted and full of barely contained violence. His job -- his reason for being -- is to keep Alyss safe, and he has failed at that charge. He will move heaven and earth, he will endure any hardship, he will subject himself to any pain or challenge in order to find her and fulfill his sworn duty. Along the way, he’s more than happy to help out other deserving folks, but his pursuit of Alyss is unwavering. Hatter wants to find her, get back to Wonderland and make things right. If he has to kill a bunch of bad guys in order to accomplish those goals, well, that’s fine with him -- and will likely be fine with his readers as well.

On top of Hatter’s adventures themselves, Beddor frames his collections around himself as a literary sleuth who has discovered the truth about Wonderland. In the final pages of the third volume, he provides ephemera collected about the characters in the story, research he has conducted on Wonderland and excerpts from Alyss’s journal. This makes the world he has created more real (and interesting), and also brings the readers of Hatter M deeper into the larger Looking Glass Wars world. It will also -- one hopes -- make Lewis Carroll’s Alice a more relatable character, and Beddor's readers will want to read more about her. Regardless, Beddor’s creation stands on its own, and is an enormous amount of fun. As someone who is not a literary purist, I think Alice can handle some competition just fine. There is plenty of room in the world for Lewis Carroll and Frank Beddor, and for sure we need to be making room for Hatter M.

Jenny Davidson’s sequel to The Explosionist (see my review here), Invisible Things, picks up right after Sophie’s desperate escape from Scotland and her arrival in Denmark, home of her boyfriend Mikael -- and, more importantly, The Institute for Theoretical Physics. There are many plots afoot in this alternate history saga where Napoleon did not lose at Waterloo, Europe has lines drawn between the north and south, spiritualism is alive and well, and the term “Stepford Wife” takes on a whole new scary level of meaning. (Also, Alfred Nobel is alive in a tank of water with all sorts of tubes attached to all sorts of machines, and that’s all I’m going to say -- but it should give you an image of just where the technology can go here.)

The book takes place in 1938, so it should not surprise readers to find politics at the center of the story. Sophie is on a more personal mission, however, to find out just what was behind the deaths of her parents when she was a baby. Along the way she learns some unsettling news about other family members, ponders where her relationship with Mikael is going, and considers a lot of good food -- in fact, on a scale of one to ten, Davidson’s stories rate pretty high when it comes to food porn. (I was reminded of C.S. Lewis and Turkish Delight when reading about Sophie’s love for icing; food is practically a character in this novel.)

What I loved about The Explosionist is delightfully still true in Invisible Things: Davidson has crafted a wholly new and inventive world for teen readers that takes Sophie to places they will never have imagined. Her mix of history and science, technology and gentle romance and, in this case, political drama and The Snow Queen (I’m not kidding) is so original that the mind practically spins at the possibilities. Sophie is a brave and stalwart protagonist, steadfast in her determination to find the truth, and in spite of numerous events spinning out of her control, she still loads up her cat, packs her bag and sets out to face down the villains who try to stop her. You have to love Sophie, you just have to.

My only complaint about Invisible Things is that it does not enjoy the leisurely pace so welcome in The Explosionist and thus feels rushed, especially when Sophie is forced to head north for a major confrontation. (It’s almost 200 pages shorter than the first book, and it shows.) There seems to be a lot more that Davidson wanted to write here, and I’m at a loss as to why the book is so short. I’m ever hopeful there will be a third book in the series to finish things up, because the ending is rather abrupt (although it does resolve the main issues), and there is certainly room for more to this saga. Invisible Things takes Sophie further in her story, brings her closer to the answers she seeks, and suggests a future with not only Mikael, but Alfred Nobel himself. In a perfect world, there would be more to her adventures on the horizon, and more of this fascinating and so carefully crafted world.

Finally, Ann and Jeff Vandermeer have edited a new anthology, Steampunk II: Steampunk Reloaded. Published for adults, there are several stories here that will appeal to teen readers. “Dr. Lash Remembers” by Jeffrey Ford is a plague story that perfectly blends paranoia and horror to provide readers with thrills and chills minus the blood -- an unusual and powerful accomplishment in the era of vampires and zombies. Margo Lanagan channels Connie Willis’s “All My Darling Daughters” with a deeply felt story of the creepiness found in a new marriage in “Machine Maid.” Anyone who pondered the dark side of Weird Science (or that Buffy episode “I Was Made to Love You”) will have seen this one coming miles away, but Lanagan spins it beautifully.

“The Unbecoming of Virgil Smythe” by Ramsey Shehadeh is a parallel worlds story set on a train (something like The Orient Express, judging from the author’s description) that offers twists and turns and questions about everything from living your best life to colonialism. Cherie Priest has another entry in her Clockwork Century world with “Tanglefoot.” Readers of her novella Clementine will especially enjoy this deeper look at the inner workings of a southern sanitarium where healing the mad is only one of the goals. In “The Persecution Machine,” Tanith Lee asks the question of what to do when you aren’t just paranoid -- there really is someone out to get you; and Sydney Padua provides an alternate ending for Ada Lovelace in the delightful comic “Ada Lovelace: The Origin!” I want a poster of this character, and a graphic novel, and a cartoon. I love what Padua has done for Lovelace and I know everyone else will love it too.

There are also a couple of excellent essays included in the collection from Gail Carriger on steampunk fashion to the “Intersection of Technology and Romance” by Jake von Slatt. Overall, Steampunk II has a ton of reading fun to offer, although I do have to admit its darkness got a bit frustrating after awhile. There can be plenty of humor in the genre (Carriger is a master of it in her Parasol Protectorate series), but the Vandermeers certainly did not go in that direction. This will make fans of dystopian fiction happy (they aren’t the happy ending sort), but a little balance wouldn’t be remiss in future editions.

COOL READ: Arguably, the first steampunk book ever is Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Seas, and if you’ve read Jules Verne, then you know all about the Giant Squid and thus will be quite intrigued by HP Newquist’s Here There Be Monsters: The Legendary Kraken and the Giant Squid. This heavily-illustrated nonfiction text looks at the myths, legends, marine biology and history of the kraken, as scientists sought to uncover its secrets and writers reveled in its ongoing mystery. Jules Verne is here, of course, but so are Tennyson and a host of fisherman who for centuries reported bizarre sightings that could never be backed up with evidence. The coolest picture, by far, is of a giant squid that washed up onshore in Newfoundland in 1873, and was studied by the Reverend Moses Harvey, who fortuitously had a special interest in history, science and sea monsters. Verne would have totally loved this guy.

When I think of books for reluctant teen readers, Here There Be Monsters should be at the top of the list. It has an appealing subject (who doesn’t think squids are interesting?), and is put together with an eye toward graphic intensity and an intellectual curiosity of everything from literature to hands-on science. It manages to appeal equally to geeks and horror movie fans. The research is solid but not stuffy, and the fact that so many myths carried a modicum of truth will make readers reconsider other mysteries with a more careful eye. (I’m still holding out hopes on what is going on in Loch Ness. Call me a hopeless romantic, or an aspiring cryptozoologist, but I can’t help but hope there is something down there.) Steampunk encompasses many facets of history and literature, but you can’t ignore its origin, which most assuredly includes one hell of a big squid. With Newquist as your guide, you’ll never dismiss a story of the deep again.