Children of the Different -S.C. Flynn

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“‘We’ve got to go back,’ she said.

‘Back where?’ Narrah looked shocked.

‘Into the Changeland.’

‘What? Why?’…

…’If we go back into the Changeland, perhaps we’ll find what we need while the memories are still strong.'”

***

Source: Review Copy

Publisher: The Hive

Date of Publication: September 10, 2016

Print Length: 227 pages.

     When the world ends, it ends in madness, leaving few survivors and even fewer still considered human.  Those who survive with their humanity intact live in fear of the technology believed to have caused the apocalypse and of the roving packs of cannibalistic “ferals” that comprise the rest.  Yet life goes on, diminished but not defeated, if only in small settlements such as the one near the outskirts of Perth, Australia, where survivors have banded together into families of necessity, rather than biology.

Young Narrah and Arika have never known another life than this, neither a time when technology worked, nor a time of safety beyond the walls of their settlement.  They’ve also never known a time without “the changing”, a coma-like sleep children fall into upon puberty, from which they either die or return changed, whether into mindless ferals or beings with bizarre and wonderful powers of the mind.  Their friends Wirrah and Toura have already been to the” Changeland”, as it is called, one returning with an unnatural sense of danger, the other as prophetess whose prognostications are infallible.  Yet Narrah and Arika are unique even in a world of the special, sharing a psychic link they refer to as “the path”, an ability inherited from their long dead parents.  Fraternal twins who once shared a womb, they utilize this ability to communicate, whatever the distance between them.

While in the Changeland, Arika finds herself in a reality made up of memories of those who lived before the fall, and meets a malevolent creature who has taken the form of an echidna that preys on those undergoing the changing.  It’s only through the intervention of Narrah (who is able to enter the Changeland by way of their psychic link) that they are both able to escape.  When she awakes, Arika gradually discovers she can mimic the senses and abilities of myriad animals.  Locked up by the settlement’s inhabitants for fear she may become feral, Arika uses her newly found powers to escape and flees with Toura to find Narrah, who has been kidnapped by the City people (those who still believe in science and technology).  Little does she (or Narrah) know, but he’s essential to them by way of the gift he receives on his own journey to the Changeland.   Arika and Narrah, with the help of their childhood friends and the City People, will embark on a journey to unlock the past to save the future.

***

When evaluating whether I’ve enjoyed a novel, I like to imagine the process as akin to a balance, with one arm representing the mechanics of the prose (how well it’s written), the other representing the plot (the framework of the story), and the fulcrum upon which they rest as my resulting enjoyment.  Topple the balance one way or the other and as a reader, I come away dissatisfied.  It’s an especially tricky tightrope to walk (just like mixing metaphors) when the novel has been self published.  In such cases, my balance is relatively flexible, in that I’m willing to forgive rough prose or a loosely developed story as long as its counterpart shifts the balance into equilibrium. Such is the case with S.C. Flynn’s Children of the Different.

The dystopian novel is a well-worn genre in literary circles, whether it be the post apocalyptic world Stephen King’s The Stand, or perhaps more appropriately to our subject, John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids*. In Flynn’s case, he’s travelling well trodden dystopian ground, what with the apocalyptic plague of madness, the loss of technology (and irrational fear of it), the hero’s journey, exemplified in both Narrah and Arika and their individual storylines that inevitably converge, and of course, the idea of the chosen one (or two)  whose path may lead to salvation.  Yet these obvious tropes are manipulated with skillful effect to engage the reader (at least this one) in Narrah and Arika’s exploits, and at the end of the day, leaves the reader wanting more of their story.  It’s not that the plot remains unresolved, but that much of the story falls outside the margins of what we’re allowed to see.  There’s much more to the history of the madness and what led up to it, more of the tale of the twin’s parents and their special connection, and especially, more of Arika and Narrah, whose story is both resolved—yet  not—at the end of the novel. Personally, I’d like to know it.

The other end of the balance is where Children of the Different finds some hurdles to overcome.  At times the author can be overly verbose, specifically regarding the chase scenes, which tend to come across as overlong.  It’s a situation where the use of a professional editor would be useful to tighten the pacing and guard against the aforementioned verbosity while retaining the author’s voice.  Yet it is a quibble rather than criticism, as Flynn’s story more than makes up for the deficit of brevity.  However, as a reader, I must admit to a certain bias regarding concise writing, preferring an economy of words, especially with regards to Young Adult novels, for fear of intimidating the reader.  So it’s a subjective rather than objective criticism, and in the final analysis, the balance between writing mechanics and entertaining story is kept.

Children of the Different is a Young Adult post-apocalyptic novel by S.C. Flynn, an Australian ex-pat currently living in Ireland.  He maintains a blog at scflynn.comChildren of the Different is his debut novel, and I look forward to his future endeavors.

 

*note to self—sit down and read your copy of The Chrysalids.

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The Revenant of Thraxton Hall- Vaughn Entwistle

 

 

 

 

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall

“As I previously stated, madam, I am not with the police.  If you believe a murder has taken place–“

“No Mr. Doyle,” the woman hastened to explain. “That is my problem.  I need you to solve a murder…that has not yet taken place.”

Source: Review copy from publisher

Publisher:  Titan Books

Publication Date: March 28, 2014

1894—Sir Arthur Conan Doyle has committed murder most foul, and feels not the least regret.  With the death of Sherlock Holmes, his body washed away in the waters below Reichenbach Falls, Doyle is finally free to write the fiction he wants, stories of substance to be remembered beyond his lifetime—stories with greater depth than the trivial “Penny Dreadfuls” the public clamors for.  Yet Holmes’ devoted fans will have none of that, and their erstwhile adoration has turned to indignation at the demise of Britain’s most famous consulting detective.  Doyle’s relief at being free of Holmes’ shadow turns to dismay when he finds himself the object of the public scorn.

At the very same time Doyle is finding London less than conducive to his health—both physical and mental—he receives a summons from an anonymous woman with an unusual affliction and a penchant for melodrama.  She wants to enlist his help in solving a murder—her own as it stands—a murder that will take place two weeks hence.  The mysterious woman claims to be a renowned medium, utilizing her clairvoyance to pull aside the veil of life and glimpse what lies beyond.  Unfortunately for her, what lies beyond is death by murder.  Yet to her mind there is some hope of avoiding that fate, a hope maintained because of the one face she sees clearly in her visions—the face of Arthur Conan Doyle.

At first Doyle is skeptical, but after witnessing a performance of Daniel Dunglas Hume’s astounding levitation and “feats of psychic wonder” with his good friend and confidante, the irreverent and debauched Oscar Wilde, he begins to wonder.  Shortly thereafter, his fate is sealed when he receives a summons to appear as a prospective member of the Society for Psychical Research at Thraxton Hall, the matriarch of which is one Hope Thraxton, a young medium with an unusual affliction…

Vaughn Entwistle’s The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is first in a series of novels known as The Paranormal Casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle chronicling the exploits of Doyle as he examines um…well…the paranormal.  It’s a mystery blending historical reality and paranormal fantasy as Conan Doyle explores the world of 19th century Spiritualism, a subculture populated either by paranormal charlatans or characters finely attuned to what lies beyond the mortal coil .

Before reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall I was only vaguely aware of Conan Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism and most unaware of the Society for Psychical Research, a group that astonished me by its mere existence.  Skepticism is apparently much more a part of my nature than I thought, and so it was that I had a hard time suspending my disbelief while reading this novel.  Accepting that Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was somewhat of a sleuth in real life is really quite easy.  Accepting that he was a sucker for the pseudo-science of Spiritualism is not.  However, one should not argue with history, so let’s agree for the moment that Doyle was as fallible as the rest of us and go on from there.

What I found while reading The Revenant of Thraxton Hall is that while Entwistle has come up with an intriguing idea, his execution of the storyline was rather uneven.  While doing an excellent job of incorporating historical characters of the SFPR into this tale of paranormal intrigue, there were times where the background, the characters, or the situation, were rather stereotyped.

An example would be the setting.  Thraxton Hall is a formerly stately manor fallen to disrepair (if only to provide a suitably creepy setting for the novel) in which the characters find themselves conveniently trapped for the majority of the novel due to a raging storm and its isolated locale.  It’s the house on haunted hill without the hill, a setting particularly suited to ghost stories, mysteries, and almost every Scooby-Doo episode.  Honestly, I’m beginning to wonder if there are any English estates that don’t harbor a multitude of secret doors and passages to sepulchral crypts.  And yet it is par for the course with regards the supernatural, a manor reminiscent of Hell House or Shirley Jackson’s Hill House.

As to the characters, they represent a mélange of the eclectic and cliché, from Madam Zhozhovsky, renowned Russian émigré (possibly of Barnsley in Yorkshire) and noted palm-reader/medium/charlatan, to Lord Webb, a rather compelling mesmerist (and stuffed shirt) whose motives are not altogether forthright. Then there’s Mrs. Kragan, the crotchety head housekeeper with her own motives, and Greaves, a blind butler who knows the ins and outs of Thraxton Hall like the back of his hand—by  necessity. There’s Frank Podmore, skeptic (and historical figure) obsessed with unmasking the frauds he believes to infest the society, especially with regards Daniel Dunglas Hume, “the greatest psychic medium in the world!” another historical figure whose affinity for levitation borders on the absurd.  There’s Hope Thraxton, heir to Thraxton Hall, a talented medium and heiress who suffers an unusual affliction that necessitates her living in continual darkness and that may eventually lead to dementia—if it already hasn’t.  An amusing nod to the Sherlock canon resides in the character of “The Count”, a European aristocrat who sports a three-quarter mask reminiscent of certain Bohemian King for much the same purpose.

Lest we forget, this is a novel taken from the paranormal casebooks of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and yet it is in him that we find the least flamboyant character.  He’s dismissive of his fictional sleuth, yet envious of Sherlock’s analytical abilities.  He’s duty bound by the conventions of the 19th century, conflicted by his physical attraction to young Hope Thraxton and the guilt of such thoughts in the face of his wife Touie’s long illness.  He also plays the role of the straight man to his eccentric friend, the bohemian Oscar Wilde.

It’s with Oscar Wilde that I as a reader found a character both ridiculous, yet delightful.  Wilde is portrayed in the novel as (I hope) a caricature, outrageously flamboyant, charming yet prissy, bombastic yet squeamish. He’s also easily bored and very, very bohemian, in affectation if not reality. Wilde is a compelling sidekick, a marvelous friend to Conan Doyle, and frankly a lot of fun, but there are moments when his overbearing personality rises to extreme proportions.  Then again, I suspect such was true of the man upon which this caricature is based.   Finally, we have the eponymous Revenant of Thraxton Hall, an entity that may or may not be influencing the behavior of several characters and a specter to whom I’ll let the reader introduce themselves.

As for the situation, Conan Doyle’s investigation into Hope Thraxton’s murderous vision was dealt with in a generally appealing manner, yet there were times when it felt as though he was making leaps of logic rather than working from the observable facts.  There’s also an aside, a “locked room murder” mystery within the mystery that for the life of me HAS NO MOTIVE.  A character is killed for no discernible reason whatsoever (and believe me, I searched the text several times for a motive), leaving me as the reader distracted by a puzzle with no solution.  There’s a how, when and where, but no why?*  The plot tended to meander rather than evolve and there were times when Doyle seemed to stumble to conclusion rather than solve the mystery.  However, there is a scene near the end of the novel involving a telegram and a train that makes up for most of the meandering in one fell (redemptive and clever) swoop.

The Revenant of Thraxton Hall was a delightful idea, combining Doyle’s interest in Spiritualism with his natural talent for mysteries, yet this idea was unevenly executed.  I suspect that’s more the result of this being a debut or inexperience rather than any lack of ability and that with a sophomore novel, the writing will even out.  Even though The Revenant of Thraxton Hall wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, I would heartily recommend it to die-hard fans of Conan Doyle.

Vaughn Entwistle maintains a website (and blog) at www.vaughnentwistle.com and has a sequel, The Dead Assassin, to be published in June of 2015.  Based on the description, and being one of those die-hard fans, I suspect I’ll be checking it out.

 

 

*If you discover the motive behind the locked room murder, please leave a note in the comments.  It would be much appreciated.

 

Carrie–Stephen King

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“Miss Desjardin came running over to her, and she wasn’t laughing anymore. She was holding out her arms to her. But then she veered off and hit the wall beside the stage. It was the strangest thing. She didn’t stumble or anything. It was as if someone had pushed her, but there was no one there.”

From We Survived the Black Prom, by Norma Watson.

Source: Bought copy

Publisher: Penguin

Publication Date: April 5, 1974

Carrie White is a misfit—always has been as a matter of fact. A scapegoat for the other teens at Thomas Ewen Consolidated High School, she’s the one you mock when you want to make yourself feel better. She’s a bully’s dream—awkward of both speech and manner—the perfect patsy. Her mother has spent Carrie’s 16 years on this earth tormenting her, punishing Carrie for her own supposed iniquities. Years of suffering the taunts of her schoolmates and her mother’s insanely religious fervor have turned Carrie from a pretty little blonde haired child into a mousy and introverted teen, too cowed to put up a fight when faced with the pettiness and enmity of her social peers. There’s no fight in her and they know it.

After Carrie suffers a particularly brutal taunting session in the girl’s locker room, Sue Snell, a girl with a modicum of shame for her participation, devises a plan to atone for her behavior, and maybe rehabilitate Carrie’s image. She wants to do something nice for the girl she pities and in the process absolve herself of her guilt. Sue’s boyfriend Tommy Ross is one of the popular kids. He’s also a genuinely kind soul and in love with Sue, so when she suggests he ask Carrie to the prom in her place, he says yes. Not because he pities Carrie, but because he loves Sue. Neither of them could predict the consequences of their good deed, neither for themselves, nor Carrie, nor the good people of Chamberlain Maine. You see, Carrie has a secret, and one last humiliation will be all it takes to put her over the edge and unleash a fury that will make everyone at the prom of ’79 regret ever taunting her—if they survive.

In a day and age where the problem of bullying has become prevalent (or at least more noticeable do to the rise of social media), Carrie has a timeless feel. It’s eminently relatable to anyone who’s gone through the experience of high school and the various injustices we all committed or been subjected to. Part of the thrill of Carrie is the satisfaction involved in watching her unleash the terror of her power on those who’ve tormented her all those years. Who hasn’t dreamed of getting revenge on those who’ve bullied us in the past? It’s juvenile, but then this is the story of juveniles.

But King doesn’t bludgeon us with stereotypes. It’s not a case of Carrie versus a bunch of shitty, one dimensional teenagers. There are moments at the prom where we get to see glimpses of Carrie’s schoolmates, and they’re not caricatures—there’s no black and white. When Tommy Ross introduces Carrie to George Dawson and Frieda Jason, he shows us that Carrie’s later fury is misplaced, and that is one of the more horrifying aspects of the novel’s climax. Most of those Carrie hurts don’t deserve it.

Tommy Ross is the most relatable and adult character of the novel. He’s no fool; he knows high school is not the real world and what teenagers find important is not a reflected in reality. It doesn’t matter if you’re the captain of the football team or the misfit sitting in the corner of the library trying not to be noticed. High school is a transitory phase of life, and unlike a lot of teens, he knows it’s not the end all and be all in life. As for Sue Snell—her motives are less clear. She comes across sympathetically, sincere in her efforts to atone for abusing Carrie but tarnished by the possibility that she’s atoning for her own selfish purposes. Chris Hargensen’s motives are clear and simple—hurt Carrie—whom she sees as the author of her misfortunes. She’s a spoiled girl who’s never had consequences for her actions, and isn’t prepared in any way for what results from her prank at that ill-fated prom.

The one character who’s definitely a stereotypical horror trope is Carrie’s mother, Margaret White. The religious freak (for lack of a better term) has been a favourite of horror authors for at least as long as I’ve been a reader, and I find it a worn and lazy trope. Christians are an easy target, generally unfairly portrayed in literature as either religious zealots or rigid and unfeeling automatons. It’s tiresome and disingenuous. However, King wrote this novel back in 1974 and therefore I suspect two things: that the trope was perhaps not a trope back then and that he’s partially responsible for creating a trope that would permeate through the genre of horror fiction. I will admit that he did a wonderful job. Margaret White is the iconic example of the type—a batshit crazy zealot, blending her religious zeal with a serious mental illness. Her constant bullying of her daughter—for simply existing—gives the reader some large gratification when she finally meets her fate.

Now Carrie is a much different story.

Even knowing the horrible revenge she exacts on her schoolmates, it’s impossible not to have sympathy for Carrie White. She’s such a beaten down character, but not in any way a horrible person. She has the same dreams as her peers; she yearns for the acceptance every teen wants. She’s got the same schoolgirl crushes (Tommy Ross) as all the other girls, but just doesn’t quite fit into any of their cliques. Undeserving of the hideous prank Christine Hargensen and her psychopathic boyfriend Billy Nolan play at the height of the prom, it’s with a certain amount of perverse satisfaction that we as readers observe the reign of terror she presides over in the latter half of the novel.

The theme of redemption and revenge weave through the core of this novel. Redemption is the defining desire of many of the characters. Carrie wants to redeem her life—be a normal teenager—before it’s too late. Sue Snell wants to redeem her good character, hating to be seen as just another bully, even if it’s in her own mind. Even Margaret White is looking for redemption in her own twisted way, culminating in her attempt to kill her own daughter in “repentance” for her sins. As for revenge, it’s what motivates everything Christine Hargensen does. Christine sees Carrie as the manufacturer of her misfortunes, blindly ignoring her own culpability and literally lusting at the idea of putting Carrie in her place. Billy Nolan goes along with her plan for much the same reason. And then there’s Carrie. She seeks revenge for her humiliation, for what happened to Tommy, for 16 years of constant torture at the hands of pretty much everyone.

In Carrie, Stephen King wrote a novel that is both chilling and heart wrenching, creating in Carrie White a character that is both villain and victim, and enticing the reader to care about a young girl essentially turned mass murderer. Carrie may be one of Stephen King’s earliest novels but to me it still ranks among his best. It’s also one of his shorter works, and you will most likely find yourself burning through the story in one, maybe two reading sessions.

Carrie was published April 5th, 1974, forty years ago today, and in honour of the anniversary Matt Craig over at Reader Dad conceived the wonderful idea of a series of tributes and the simultaneous publishing of various bloggers reviews of this seminal work in the genre of horror fiction. It’s been an honour taking part.

Christmas Fear and Christmas Cheer

So, it’s that time of year again, in which bloggers either do a post on their favourite novels/short stories of the past year or spend some time looking at seasonally topical reads.  The season being Christmas, I’ve been mulling over some suggestions for you this past week.  Unfortunately, mulling isn’t writing, and I’ve found myself feeling like Clark Kent must every time Lois Lane scoops him.

In my case, the character of Lois Lane is played by one Michaela Gray, a.k.a. “The Bookaneerover at GeekPlanetOnline .  Hop on over and check out her article before I give you my list of Christmas themed reads.  I’ll wait.

And…we’re back.  At the risk of being redundant, here’s my list of Christmas tales you should check out.

1.  A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

A Christmas CarolThe obvious choice on any Christmas themed list, Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, is the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and his one night journey to redemption after a little rough handling by the spirits of Past, Present and Future.   Universally loved and a book that hasn’t really left the collective consciousness since its publication back in 1843. Now that’s a story with legs.

Beyond the cheery message that no one is beyond redemption, what I find kind of neat about Dickens’ work is that it’s totally a horror novel.  Think about it for a second.  Some poor (well, rich) old geezer tormented by a host of spirits in the dead of night in a drafty old English mansion.  That’s practically a Richard Matheson novel!. A Christmas Carol is truly a classic and deserves top billing on any Christmas themed list.

2.  I Am Scrooge (A Zombie Story for Christmas) by Adam Roberts

ZombieScroogeIt’s to my eternal shame (okay, maybe not eternal–how about transitory?) that Adam Roberts’ re-imagining of Dickens tale has sat on my shelf low this past year without being read.  It’s especially puzzling considering my continued interest in funny zombie novels.  The idea of the three ghosts teaming up with old Ebenezer to combat a hungry horde of shambling zombies and by happenstance save the world is definitely appealing to anyone with an interest in the walking dead.  I’m not sure it will have as happy an ending as the original, but I am sure there’ll be a meal somewhere along the way.  Although I doubt there’s a lot of meat on Tiny Tim, or Scrooge for that matter.

3.  Naughty:  Nine Tales of Christmas Crime by Steve Hockensmith

NaughtySteven Hockensmith is a wonderful mystery writer who’s turned his attention to Christmas themed mysteries on several (at least nine) occasions.  If you’re a fan of the genre and looking for something with a Christmas(y) feel to it, then Naughty is the book for you.  My favourite tale involves the kidnapping of a certain man in a red suit by members of the KGB and Mrs. Klaus efforts to effect his rescue.  Poisoned fruitcake, devious secret santas, and an introduction to Hannah Fox, a character I hope to meet some day in her own novel, all make this a novel that any mystery lover should invest in.  Do yourself a favour and pick it up as either an ebook or print version.  Steve is a master of both mystery and witty dialogue and I’ve had a long history of not being disappointed with his writing.

Speaking of short stories, Arthur Conan Doyle was known for writing a Christmas tale or two involving everyone’s favorite Victorian detective, Sherlock Holmes.  Honourable mention goes to The Adventure of the Blue Carbuncle in which Sherlock shows considerable restraint with regards to a criminal whom he encounters at Christmas.  George Mann has also made an effort to write a series of Christmas themed stories with regards to his wonderful Newbury and Hobbes series of Steampunk detective novels, all of which can be obtained if you pick up a copy of The Casebook of Newbury and Hobbes.  Try reading Christmas Spirits if you’d like a unique take on A Christmas Carol involving a detective on an opium bender during the holidays.

I’m sure there are many more Christmas themed tales that I’m omitting in the course of this holiday post.  If you’ve got a tale or novel to add to the mix, please feel free to enlighten me in the comments, and in the meantime, enjoy yourself a merry little Christmas.

 


Bitter Seeds–Ian Tregillis

Bitter Seeds

“The price has been negotiated.  It will be paid.”

“The Hell it will!  Tell it to sod off.”

“My friends.”  Will spoke in a rigidly neutral tone.  The strain of maintaining his composure and concentration showed in the beads of moisture on his forehead.  “One does not renege on these negotiations…At best we can control the circumstances of the payment.”

At the dawn of the 20th century, many nations looked toward the creation of a superior human through the study of eugenics, a scientific pursuit that was taken to horrifying extremes under the Nazi regime during the 40’s.  In pursuit of the Übermensch, physicians such as Joseph Mengele became notorious for their barbaric experimentation and disregard for human life, while Adolf Hitler’s attitude towards race and racial “purification” (aryanization) directly led to the Holocaust and the genocide of over six million Jews by war’s end in 1945.  Once the atrocities of the camps were exposed to the wider world, the concept of eugenics fell out of favour with the world community.  Ian Tregillis’ Bitter Seeds is the story of an alternate 20th century in which the Nazi’s were successful in bringing about the Übermensch and placing England in such desperate straits as to delve into forces both unnatural and malevolent to counter their Nazi foes.

While on a mission to extract a German defector from Franco’s Spain during the Spanish Civil War, Lieutenant-Commander Raybould Marsh of the S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) witnesses something beyond his ability to comprehend when his contact spontaneously combusts right before his eyes.  All that’s left of the informant’s belongings are some charred papers and the remnants of a remarkable, almost unbelievable film.  Once the film is reconstructed, it shows German test subjects purported to be exhibiting paranormal abilities.  One subject seemingly walks through walls, another crushes objects with his mind and yet a third demonstrates the ability to create and shape fire to his purposes.  Yet it is a young woman who bears no obvious outward manifestation that will prove to be the most dangerous weapon of this Nazi arsenal. 

Once the war begins in earnest, this group of Wunderwaffen prove their worth, forcing Marsh and his mentor in the secret service, John Stephenson, to enlist the help of Marsh’s college friend—and Warlock—Lord William Beauclerk.  Together, they assemble a unit (code-named Milkweed) comprised of Britain’s foremost magical talents to “negotiate” with otherworldly presences known as Eidolons to assure the safety of the home countries.  However, the assistance of these demonic forces comes with a price—a blood price—that quickly escalates as England’s situation deteriorates.  Beyond the physical blood price is the spiritual one as these patriots commit reprehensible acts upon their own countrymen to secure the continued cooperation of their supernatural allies.  As the novel goes on, the British find themselves in a morally suspect situation, and Will begins to suspect that the price of victory—even to stop the evil that is the Third Reich—may not be worth what they’ve sacrificed, both physically and spiritually.  The morally dubious English alliance with Stalin’s Soviet Union that in reality allowed an allied victory is in this alternate history replaced with a morally bankrupt alternative in the form of the mysterious Eidolons.

Bitter Seeds is a wonderfully well written novel.  It’s also incredibly dark and depressing, especially as the reader slowly realizes the depths to which the ostensive “good-guys” will sink in their moral corruption.  The actions of the British Warlocks stretch the meaning of the phrase, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” to incredulity.  Without giving away any spoilers, the price to be paid for each victory “negotiated” with the Eidolons is an assault on the basic morality of otherwise honourable men.  The novel poses the question of whether or not the ends can always justify the means.  What price would you pay; what heinous actions would you undertake, in the name of the greater good?  Could you kill a child if it would end the war?  How about two?  Or twenty?  Who decides what the greater good is or what price is acceptable, especially if one’s essential morality is lost in the process?  

Of the characters in the novel, it is somewhat ironic that Will, the facilitator of the Milkweed project, is the only character to stop long enough to examine himself and his motives.  He begins the novel as a patriot who wants to do something for his country and as a byproduct impress his brother, and further to be seen as something more than an aristocratic fop.  Later, he comes to question the road they’ve travelled and the price of his actions.  Marsh is a less introspective character, beginning the novel as the good son, modeling his career on that of his adoptive father (the aforementioned John Stephenson, a patriotic yet cold and cunning man) and slowly losing his moral compass as tragedy envelops his family and in his desperation to foil the Nazi Übermensch.

Surprisingly, Tregillis gives us a well-rounded depiction of the Nazi super soldiers, from the principled Klaus to the amoral Reinhardt, the sympathetic simpleton that is Kammler and the self-conscious Heike, and of course, the inscrutable Gretel, to whom everything and everyone is a pawn in a game only she comprehends.   The novel also focuses on small scenes while allowing the greater historical events to fall into place as the stage in which their story plays out.  The greater events of the war, such as the Dunkirk evacuation or operation Sea Lion are mentioned merely as background, but a raid by British forces through supernatural means on the farm that acts as a base to the Übermensch takes up a good portion of the narrative.

Credible world-building is an essential factor in the creation of a believable fantasy novel, even more so in the case of an alternate history, and Tregillis manages to successfully interweave fantasy and science fiction into what would otherwise be categorized as an alternate history novel.  All the essential elements of alternate history are there, twisted into his vision of what might be if the element of fantasy is added.  Dunkirk ends quite differently due to the addition of the Übermensch and their far seer, while the invasion of England is forestalled not by the natural vagaries of the weather (as in reality) but by the mystical wall of nature created by the Eidolons.

I cannot stress enough how very much this is a novel structured around the examination of morality and the horrors that occur when ones moral code is compromised.  Will recoils in horror and devolves into madness as he realizes the evil he has unleashed into the world may be worse than the one they are fighting, while Marsh degenerates from a principled patriot into an obsessive who allows revenge to overcome his principles.  It becomes a matter of the ends justify the means to Marsh, while Will continually questions whether or not they have unduly compromised their humanity.

Bitter Seeds left me with a feeling of profound sadness. I allowed Ian Tregillis to create an empathy in me towards the majority of his characters (yes, even the Übermensch) and then watched them devolve into morally bankrupt shells of their former selves.  Tregillis also left me with an unrepentant desire to continue reading of their decline—or possible salvation—in the next book of the Milkweed triptych, The Coldest War.

B+

Cadaver In Chief–Steve Hockensmith

Cadaver In Chief

“Hello,” Woods said as she walked to her car.  “Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.  Hello.”  She said, “Hello” to everyone she passed, and they all said “Hello” to her.  Anyone who didn’t say “Hello” would get looked at pretty hard.  Maybe even shot. 

The end times were hell on shy people.

The end times were also pretty much hell on the newspaper industry.  Already under siege by the rise of on-line media, the zombie apocalypse put the last coffin nail in a dying industry.  After all, if people were taking their lives in their hands every time they left the house for work, they certainly wouldn’t want to venture out in search of a People magazine or their favourite daily.  Besides—all the paperboys were dead.

Jan Woods, reporter for the Washington Tribute, is winding down her last couple of days before retirement, reporting puff pieces on dog grooming that no one is likely to read.  She’s going through the motions: research story…shoot a zombie…write the story…run down a zombie with her car…etc. etc. Just another day in the big city.  However, when that city is Washington, from time to time one must forget about the mindless undead and write about the brainless living.  Send in the politicians!

As it so happens, Jan’s editor has an interesting story for her to pursue. A nasty rumour has surfaced online, “Nasty” being the term used these days to describe the walking dead.  Nasty, as in the President’s been dead for a while, but he’s still walking around, glad-handing and kissing babies (nasty!) and all the assorted duties of the commander in chief.  Or, Cadaver in Chief, if the rumours are true.

Not since Watergate had such a juicy tip fallen into the hands of a Washington reporter, crazy though it sounds.  If the president is really a former president, a “ManChompian” candidate of sorts, then it’s a conspiracy that reaches to the highest level of government, and Jan’s got herself a scoop that could end her career on a high note.  However, if the plot goes as deep as that, Jan’s got a scoop that could end her—permanently.

There is a bit of a snag—the juicy tip comes from one Rick Klinger, on-line conspiracy freak and blogger for Truthbuffet.org, a left wing “political” site akin to the Huffington Post.  Known as a bit of a loon, Klinger (who bears a striking resemblance to the odious Alex Jones—minus the obvious psychopathy) has a source within the Republican administration that claims President Brick Bradley died months earlier during a political fundraiser and the man making the rounds is actually an imposter.  However, Klinger is also a paranoid loon (again, Alex Jones) and won’t divulge his source for Jan to check out. As for her queries to the White House:

“Quote: The President is alive and well and you’re an idiot and don’t call here again. Unquote.”

Jan is nothing if not persistent, and during the course of the next several days investigates the hotel (and morgue) where the president was rumoured to have died. Next thing you know, there’s a parcel in her apartment, containing a dwarf zombie with a huge appetite.  He’s also got an explosive personality.  Maybe there is something to the rumours after all?

From there it’s an action packed adventure through Washington and its surroundings as Jan searches for answers while avoiding the attentions of mysterious government operatives and having conversations in dark parking lots with the likes of, “Debbie Does Dallas”, the “Deep Throat” of this decidedly anti-first amendment administration and their zombie minions.  Luckily, Jan is very pro-second amendment (who wouldn’t be in a world where take out dinner describes what might happen to you?) and has gotten pretty good with that hot pink Uzi she got at 7-11.  The story climaxes with a literal assault on the first amendment as Jan and her coworkers fight for their lives in the offices of the Washington Tribune, and shortly thereafter, a reelection rally that no one would forget—if they survive it.

Cadaver in Chief is a tongue in cheek political mystery that pays homage to movies like The Manchurian Candidate and All the Presidents Men—with zombies.  It’s also a nice little novella.  However, if there’s any problem with this mini-novel, it’s that it could use a little fleshing out.  Steve Hockensmith creates an interesting mystery full of government operatives and smarmy politicians, political apathy and conspiracy nuts (who may not be so nutty) and the type of experiments that might get a scientist branded “mad”,  but ten chapters is barely enough space to scratch the surface.  By the end of the novella, I felt a bit—unsatisfied.  Don’t get me wrong, it’s not because the story was lacking, rather that it lacked a bit of story.  Or, to put it another way—this novella screams for a sequel.

As for the main character, Jan Woods may be the stereotypically “plucky” reporter, but she’s also days away from retirement, much like “that cop” in any police procedural, and it’s refreshing to see a character who’s not a young, perky blonde with crazy computer skills and a body to die for.  Nor is she the grizzled Ed Asner type, simply a good reporter who’s become slightly apathetic in an age where no one respects her medium (newsprint) yet still wants to get the truth out there.

Of course, good dialogue is something I’ve always appreciated in a novel, and it’s something Steve Hockensmith excels at.  Granted, in real life not everyone is witty or wittily sarcastic (although they might like to think so), but, as I’ve said before–smart, funny dialogue is a defining feature of his previous novels.

I was a little worried at times that this was simply going to be a put-down of conservative (read that as Republican) politicians, but as time went on, the satiric vitriol came down pretty much equally on both sides of the aisle.  If there’s one thing that crosses party lines, it’s the capacity of politicians to set themselves up for ridicule.

Overall, Cadaver in Chief is a bit of zombie fun that partisans of both liberal and conservative bent can sink their teeth into.

B

(A word of apology to Steve Hockensmith: He was gracious enough to send me a preview copy of Cadaver in Chief back in November and grant me an interview, yet it’s taken until now for me to get a review together.  I’ve no readily available excuse except to claim a bit of “zombie fatigue” which has resulted in the delay.  Steve Hockensmith is a great writer and a good guy, and if you’d like to learn more about his works and process, he maintains a blog at http://www.stevehockensmith.com)

John Dies at the End apparently doesn’t translate well.

Johndiesattheend2

A while back I wrote a review of John Dies at the End, a book which I absolutely loved.  Shortly thereafter, it was optioned for film and Don Coscarelli (of Phantasm fame) attached as director.  I’ve always thought Phantasm was a pretty mixed up film, and John Dies at the End is a pretty mixed up book, so with fingers crossed I eagerly awaited a decent translation from book to screen.

Well, according to my buddy over at The Switz, it looks like I’ll have to keep waiting.