Sunday, January 18, 2015

Mini Review 5: Annihilation, Lowball, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, and The World of Ice and Fire

I was lucky enough in the period from late November through the end of the Christmas/New Years holidays to hit upon a stretch of really good books (with one exception, which I haven't finished yet, so mention of it will have to wait): The World of Ice and Fire, The Slow Regard of Silent Things, Wildcards - Lowball, and Annihilation. Each is completely different in style and tone from the others, which, in addition to the obviously different stories/subject matter, made for a nice variety, if not necessarily a smooth transition from one to the other. All are books that have been released in the past few months, so they should be easy to find if you're looking to buy — which you should be!

WARNING! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

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The World of Ice & Fire - The Untold History of Westeros and The Game of Thrones, by George RR Martin, Elio M Garcia, and Linda Antonsson
The World of Ice & Fire is a companion piece to Martin's wildly popular A Song of Ice & Fire books, though not another instalment in the series per se. This summer, during a reading at Worldcon in London, Martin gave us a bit of a teaser for it (reading a section about the last years of Aegon the Conqueror, and the succession problems following his death), and described it as his version of Tolkien's The Silmarillion — a compilation of the extended history and geography of the world of the ASOIAF series, and backstory to some of the families and cultures encountered therein. And that's a fair assessment — kind of.

TWOIAF differs from Tolkien's approach in that The Silmarillion, while somewhat dryer than an actual novel, is still a collection of tales — short stories about historical events and characters —written in the style of stories, while the book offered by Martin et al is written like a history book, something actually published by a scholar in the ASOIAF world who has researched multiple source documents and compiled them into a linear account based on what he believes was most likely to have happened. It even includes the kind of commentary and petty scholarly nitpicking about the reliability of some of the sources that you'd expect to find in an updated history published by a prof who claims to have conducted a more recent and rigorous review of the facts than any previous. To that end, TWOIAF is even dryer than The Silmarillion. But, if you enjoy reading history books like I do, and you're willing to devote many hours to studying the deep history and political and cultural nuances of this world, then it's worth while.

In addition to the written material, TWOIAF is packed full of beautiful colour illustrations — pictures of Aegon the Conqueror and his dragons during the Conquest, giants and other monsters from the ancient times (is it just me, or does the face of the giant illustrated on page 6 look suspiciously like Martin's?), and cities and peoples from Westeros, and across the continent of Essos and beyond. It's a big bruiser of a hardcover, but it really is a gorgeous book.

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The Slow Regard of Silent Things, by Patrick Rothfuss
As Patrick Rothfuss warns his readers at the beginning of The Slow Regard of Silent Things, if you're looking for a book in the same vein as the two volumes in The Kingkiller Chronicle, you're looking in the wrong place. While this little story does take place in the Kingkiller universe, it's only tangentially related to the adventures of Kvothe, and differs significantly in pace, scope, and tone. And yet, for all of that, this quiet, sweet little book is a worthy addition to the series, in that it gives us a glimpse into another life with other stakes in a heretofore unseen part of that world, and thus makes the overall place and story of that world richer and deeper.

TSROST follows Auri, the quiet, apparently (though appearances, especially in the Kingkiller world, are deceiving) feral girl who befriended Kvothe on the nighttime rooftops of the university, as she goes about her daily routines and prepares for another visit with him. And that's it.

Yes, we get a tour of the mysterious realm Auri lives in — the labyrinth of abandoned cellars, vaults, laboratories, ballrooms, sewers, wells, vents, and shafts under the university — and accompany her across the rooftops and out to a cemetery and a farmer's cottage; we watch as she goes through her rituals — frequently obsessive-compulsively — and gathers materials to make soap, collecting bric-a-brac along the way; we come along as she discovers new chambers; and we sit with her during her hours of anxiety, frustration, and despair, and follow as she crawls out of them. We learn more about Auri's personality, and get a deeper look at how her mind — like so many of the rooms in her subterranean home — has obviously been damaged by some past trauma, but, like those rooms, continues to exist and has found a new reality for herself. We see how, for Auri, the best (though not necessarily safest) way to live, is to listen to the soft voices of the world — not to impose order upon it, but to understand it, and, with that understanding, learn how to be a part of it on its terms.

But that's all there is. The battles are all internal. The companions are silent trinkets and quiet rooms. The menace comes from places that merely exist menacingly. And the challenges are things out of place with no apparent clear fix conforming to the strange rules Auri perceives in her world.

And yet, for all that smallness, this book draws the reader in as surely and deeply as any quest Kvothe has embarked upon to learn the mystical arts, win a musical duel, escape a lusty faerie queen, or battle monsters. The book implicitly tells us with its smallness that every life in every world, no matter how quiet or strange, is important, filled with wonder, and worthy of being known. And that's a sentiment that certainly applies to The Slow Regard of Silent Things too.

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Wildcards - Lowball, edited by George RR Martin and Melinda M Snodgrass
Anything can happen on the streets of Jokertown, and, in the latest instalment of the Wildcards series, this time trouble starts when jokers start disappearing off the streets. An eastern European gang has been snatching them to be thrown into the ring in an underground fightclub pitting wildcards against each other for the amusement of the rich. Father Squid, worried about the disappearance of members of his flock, puts snake-tailed vigilante Marcus "Infamous Black Tongue" on the case, while Detective Francis Black of the Jokertown precinct tries to crack the case that no-one else in the police department cares about, while dealing with cracks in his relationships at home. Former wildcard reality show contestant and now federal agent Jamal Norwood provides backup while trying to cope with the decreasing reliability of his ace power. Throw in some side stories about a roadkill-eating coroner and an avatar-creating peeping tom who help to crack some of the angles of the investigation, and you've got a pretty entertaining super power-augmented mystery.

I've been a huge fan of the Wildcards series ever since its debut back in the 80s, and one of the things that keeps me coming back is the consistently fantastic writing. Every book showcases work from authors who are bringing their A-games to create very real, very understandable characters (even if some of them are fairly awful characters that most of us would never empathize with) who just happen to live in a world of super powers and people with strange appearances, who have to deal with situations that are sometimes supernatural, but sometimes painfully familiar. I'm usually happy to immediately drop most other books to read a new Wildcards instalment because they're so good, and Lowball is no exception.

Each author ratchets-up the tension and urgency in each chapter as more and more jokers disappear. You can just feel the frustration of the characters as they keep hitting dead ends, or when they get new leads or seem to have made the right bust, only to find more roadblocks and fewer answers. And then, even when everything becomes clear and it looks like a resolution is at hand, the story jigs sideways, and things become more complicated, because not everybody makes good decisions, and life — in the Wildcards universe, as in ours — doesn't always have a happy ending. The final jolts that David Anthony Durham and Melinda M Snodgrass give in their closing chapters are especially illustrative of this: twists not for the sake of having convenient plot twists, but naturally arising out of the circumstances and there to remind us that these are bad, bad things afoot, and just being a hero isn't enough.

I can't wait for the next Wildcards to be dealt.

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Annihilation, by Jeff VanderMeer
Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation is a book that makes its readers, like its characters, work for everything. Just like the characters, we're given very little to start with: a group of women, identified only by their  duties (Biologist, Psychologist, Anthropologist, Surveyor), is sent into the mysterious "Area X", a zone in an unidentified part of North America, beyond some sort of strange boundary — which is strange in a way never really described except that it allegedly requires heavy psychological programming to cross — where several previous expeditions have gone, some ending in deaths. The members of the group have to decide what they want to explore and test to figure out what's going on in Area X, with no support or direction from the outside world. In addition to finding fields, woodlands, swamps, and the seashore, they encounter a ruined village, a lighthouse that appears to have been a setting for a slaughter, and an unsettling well (called "the tower" by our narrator, the Biologist) with a staircase winding down into the earth. Faced with animals that look at the party in a way that's all-too-human, questions raised by things found in the lighthouse, and a terrifying entity lumbering in the depths of the tower, the members of the expedition also find themselves increasingly at odds with one another, with the sense of imminent violence building as much within their camp as in the countryside. Through all of this, the Biologist works to try to understand what's going on with the environment of Area X, what happened to her husband (a member of a previous ill-fated expedition), and what's happening to herself, as exposure to spores in the tower, her dealings with others of the expedition, and the things she discovers while exploring begin to change her.

In some ways, Annihilation reminded me of Robert Charles Wilson's novels Voyage to Darwinia and Bios — Darwinia with the expedition to a surreal, and somewhat haunted-feeling, environment that seems to have been dropped onto the Earth for unknown reasons; and Bios for the ordeal of a character exploring a strange land who, in turn, is explored by that land as its substances infiltrate her and slowly consume, or incorporate — or perhaps even "convert" is a better word —  her for its own unfathomable purposes. And, more frighteningly, like in Bios, this is an absorbtion or annihilation of the body and the self by the environment that the narrator, ultimately, seems okay with. In this respect, Annihilation also feels like a Peter Watts story, where a person who is damaged or otherwise unusual in some way is thrown into a strange environment and adapts — or surrenders — themselves wholly to it. It's also Wattsian in that every member of the expedition seems damaged or hostile in some way, with the others' inability to adapt (or surrender themselves) resulting in their violent deaths. Strangely — and I know this is gonna sound really nuts — this story also had a very strong sense of the old text-based video game Zork constantly lurking in the background... with the tower's staircase and monster (the white house, the trap door under the rug, the staircase going down into the Great Underground Empire, and take your pick of grues, trolls, or other critters menacing in the shadows), and the characters entering Area X not really knowing anything and having to learn pretty much everything as they go along. I know Annihilation and Zork is a connection that just shouldn't be made, but try as I might, I couldn't shake it. And you know, it didn't ruin the story in any way.

Ultimately, Annihilation is its own story. One that can be taken in isolation as the record of an expedition gone wrong, or a teasing invitation to wander further into the depths of Area X by reading the next instalments of the Southern Reach trilogy. For my part, I'll be coming back for more.

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