Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: Beautiful Chaos, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl


Published: October 2011


Abraham stubbed his cigar out on Mrs. English’s side table and rose from the chair. He opened The Book of Moons as if he had marked a specific page.

“What are you doing? Calling more Vexes?” I shouted.

This time, they both laughed. “What I’m calling will make a Vex look like a house cat.” He started to read in a language I didn’t recognize. It had to be a Caster language—Niadic, maybe. The words were almost melodic, until he repeated them in English and I realized what they meant.

“ ‘From blood, ash, and sorrow. For the Demons imprisoned below…’ ”

“Stop!” I shouted. Abraham didn’t even look at me.

Sarafine twisted her wrist slightly, and I felt my chest tighten. “You are witnessing history, Ethan—for both Casters and Mortals. Be a little more respectful.

Abraham was still reading. “ ‘I call their Creator.’ ”


***


The more I read, the pickier I become. Nowhere do I notice this more than with Young Adult literature. With the industry still largely in a state of flux, the YA market is current the go-to money-maker for publishers. It’s the Hollywood studio system, transposed to a different medium: strike gold with a new intellectual property, then sequel the living hell out of it—without, if possible, running the franchise into the ground. It’s hard not to feel a bit suspicious or cynical when you consider the typical YA series production turnaround of only a year in several cases. It’s almost quaint to think back to the Harry Potter saga and the unknown—the indeterminate amount of time between each book. They would be ready whenever Rowling and Bloomsbury deemed them fit for public consumption. Compared to the North American pump-one-out-a-year cycle and it’s hard not to feel that time might be compromising quality.

Certainly this was the case with the most recent 800-pound YA gorilla, The Hunger Games. The phrase “diminishing returns” is being kind to Suzanne Collins clusterfuck of telling-and-not-showing—and after such a strong first entry, too. With the entire trilogy released over just three years, it’s almost impossible to look at the plot, pacing, and character gaps in the second and third books without thinking of how some extra time for polishing and rewriting might have saved the overall tale from the confusion and lack of imagery that plagued the third book, Mockingjay.

It’s with great pleasure then that I can point to the Caster Chronicles series—Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, and the most recent title in the supposed quartet, Beautiful Chaos—and say that sometimes the current model works. And works beautifully.

The Caster Chronicles series is set in the once-quiet mythical Southern American town of Gatlin—a town bursting with equal parts religious fanatics and Southern charm, as well as Casters, Incubi, Seers, Waywards, Sirens, Vexes, gothic cabals raining judgement down on the deserving and undeserving alike, inexplicable earth-wrenching weather patterns and not-so-natural disasters, and whatever the test-tube-baby-Hell John Breed happens to be. Beautiful Creatures, the first in the series, introduces us to Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes—fate-crossed high school lovers who, through a rather dramatic series of events spread over the first two titles in the series (including one pissed off Dark Caster of a mother), are drawn into a generations-old battle between light and dark, good and evil, bleach-white Wonder Bread and whole wheat…

When broken down to its basic bits and pieces, there doesn’t seem to be much to separate the Caster Chronicles from other supernatural YA fare, save for a coat of Southern drawl, pecan pies, and a total absence of glittery, emo-as-fuck vampires (and frequently shirtless werewolves, naturally). However, beyond the magic and mysticism invading the real world premise is a confident, clever, and most importantly, realistic cast of characters.

Beautiful Chaos, the third book in the series, continues this trend in a decidedly non-YA fashion. There are no lengthy recaps for those who might have missed books one and two—no cliff notes for the detailed relationships, family trees, and mythology. The authors of this saga, Garcia and Stohl, jump right into the meat of the tale. They fully expect that you’ve followed along thus far, and that the finer details of Ethan and Lena’s sometimes strained relationship, of Ridley’s power stripping, and of Link’s quarter-Incubus infusion are common knowledge for anyone picking up this book for the first time. To put it bluntly, they’re not willing to hold your hand—not for a moment—and the series is stronger for it. This is YA for the sixteen and up crowd, and they seem totally confident skewing older.

The world’s coming to an end in Beautiful Chaos—or so it would seem. Following the showdown that left the Order of Things shattered at the end of Beautiful Darkness, Chaos picks up without missing a beat, and the ramifications to Lena’s decision to claim herself as both Light and Dark are being felt in everything from extreme disturbances in nature and the weather, to the frantic search—from both sides—for John Breed, to Amma’s rapidly decreasing grip on the dangerous situation that has enveloped Ethan and Lena. Amongst this mess-to-end-all-messes are a Linkubus learning to accept his newfound status (without arousing the suspicion of his bible-toting zealot of a mother), Ridley, who is learning what it means to be a sanitized Siren, and Liv, who is discovering her place in Gatlin after sacrificing her future and her love for Ethan’s happiness.

What pulls all of this together is the quality of Garcia and Stohl’s writing. They’re able to marry the playful with maturity, which the story’s been gifted with via the weight of sacrifice that’s evident in every facet of the series—most notably through the memories of Ethan’s dead mother and her continued influence on events. Even the humour, though, seems as much intended for adults as for kids (such as a couple of great jabs against Methodists). There’s a definite Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vibe running through the series’ DNA—a comic awareness that plays to a number of different audiences with equal effectiveness.

The single strongest element, however, remains Ethan and Lena’s relationship. These two have been tested beyond normal means. Where lesser authors might feel an inclination to wipe the slate clean and give our heroes their due reprieve, Garcia and Stohl bring them back from the brink of destruction in the second book without once pretending like their emotional separation never happened. They’re a changed couple in Beautiful Chaos—more adult than I expected. Don’t misunderstand me, they’re still very much doomed teenagers in love, but without certain behavioural extremes that might have dogged them in the past. They understand the role they play now, and the threats that entails. They trust one another, and that trust has been earned. More importantly, they understand the role that others play as well, be they friend or foe. Understanding is the name of the game in Beautiful Chaos. Major antagonists are humanized in an effective manner, and a genuine sense of history and connection—though tenuous between certain characters—is more apparent than ever.

Therein lies the victory of the third title in this series: history. The sense that the characters exist in their own worlds, where details aren’t always obvious to the reader. It was a late-in-the-book moment between Ethan and Link that really worked to this effect, and it’s caused me to look to a lot of other YA titles that I’ve been reading in recent years with retroactive disappointment.

There’s a great deal to be said in defence of the Caster Chronicles series. It feels like a treat—a yearly series that manages to increase in quality, not decrease. I can’t say for certain if the development or production of these titles is handled with any more care than, say, the Scott Westerfeld Uglies series, or the aforementioned Hunger Games (both had truncated release schedules and a few too many frayed, undeveloped points to ignore), but Garcia and Stohl have crafted an inviting serial world that I can’t wait to return to.


*Incidentally, if you haven't read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and would like it not spoiled for you... maybe read that first. Things I wish I had known...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan


Published: September 2011

Finally got around to it: October 2011


All of a sudden Chip give me a look of surprise from his dark corner.

Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, the barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

I pulled back soon as he come in, fearing we was going to overpower him in that narrow closet. But he just soften it down with me, blurr it up. Then he blast out one pure, brilliant note, and I thought, my god.


***


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust for Fiction, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, Esi Edugyan’s second novel carries a hell of a lot of weight to its name. Fortunately, Half-Blood Blues more than lives up to its lofty expectations.

Splitting its narrative between Berlin and Paris in 1939 and 1940, and Berlin and Poland in 1992, Half-Blood Blues tells the tale of “the kid”—legendary trumpet player Hieronymus Falk, “one of the pioneers: a German Louis Armstrong, if you will.” Taken away by the Boots—Nazi enforcers—in 1940 and long thought dead, recovered recordings of Falk take on a near-mythical status, and his supposed death is considered one of the great tragedies to face jazz in the first half of the twentieth century.

Edugyan’s narrative follows bassist Sidney “Sid” Griffiths in both the past and the present, recounting the events that led to their evacuation of Berlin for Paris, meeting Louis Armstrong, and the final splitting of their band. Inspired by a letter his former friend and drummer Chip Jones receives, written in Hiero’s hand, the two set off to Poland to reunite with the legend they thought long gone. For Sid, the journey is not just a means to see an old friend, alive and well after decades assumed dead, but to confront his own guilt over events in 1939 and 1940, and how his actions changed the course of Hiero’s future.

Esi Edugyan digs deep into the lives and minds of a Black, Jewish, and mixed-race band trapped on the brink of war with a nation that wants nothing to do with the lot of them, or the “deviant” lifestyle their music represents. Not just dialogue, but everything—from the most basic descriptors, to long-winded inner monologues—embraces its lyrical affectations, keeping in sync with the presence of musical greatness, with the roll-with-it jazz lifestyle and the personalities that attracts, and with the overshadowing mood of the era as Germany lumbers toward a declaration of all-out war.

Dividing the book in six parts—three in the past and three in the present—there are moments in Half-Blood Blues that feel weighted too much in one direction; as compelling as it is to follow Sid, Chip, Hiero, and the rest of the band from Germany to France, hiding from the Nazis at every opportunity, Sid and Chip’s journey in the present, to reunite with Hiero and reveal the truths of their shared past, feels slightly less developed. In some respects, I don’t mind this decision, as much of Sid’s growth in the book’s final pages comes as much from what’s left unsaid as what’s revealed (given tremendous gravity and understanding through the obviously redemptive/uniting use of music in the final paragraphs). Still, with a book this difficult to put down, it’s hard not to be left wanting a little more to taste—a little more of what it was to hear Hiero for that first time, to have a changing, almost synaesthetic experience through another’s music, and to confront the loss of talent that imprisonment and the decades that followed were responsible for.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields


Published: February 2010

Finally got around to it: October 2011


259

Genius borrows nobly.

260

Good poets borrow; great poets steal.

261

Art is theft.


***


No truer words. At once blood-boiling and eye opening, David Shields’ manifesto for an artistic culture in flux is: an analysis of past and current failures to move beyond our artistic comfort zones; a decriminalization of the appropriation (piracy, to be glib) of art of all mediums for use as a constructivists’ tool in creating new levels of artistic dimensionality; a found object in and of itself—one that conceptualizes a progressive theory for adaption and, to some degree, acquiescence that mirrors the thesis put forth in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art. Put simply: art is not “art” until society interacts with it. Our social contract, forever changing, defines what art is accepted as thus, when, and to what extent. Art is “art” when it impacts, when it challenges accepted norms, and when it denies culpability.

Because art is inspiration, absorption, and redistribution.

Is it fair to say that art is theft? Sure, to a degree. But the definition of theft—and the morality, or lack thereof attached to it, remains nebulous.


***


3

An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.

191

I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction.


In Reality Hunger, Shields offers an alarming stratum shift as his central conceit: like it or not, the traditional view of art, and the accessibility of art for reuse and manipulation, has been compromised by the digital age. The Internet exists as an open platform for the distribution of ideas, thoughts, whacked-out-of-your-mind proto-conceptualizations that have no business within a common sense structure. The Internet and global digital accessibility are the very definition of a Vox Populi—unrestrained, uncensored word of mouth. The ability to cast inspiration and aspersion with equal impunity. What hasn’t changed is our aversion to confrontation. I don’t mean confrontation in a traditional sense, but with respect to being challenged by not only what we have created, but with letting go of what we have created—accepting that our dear, precious children are amorphous, flexible, and not tethered to our singular interpretations. Ideas are offered less as artefacts, and more as languages, diction primed for translation and transposition.

Wolff’s The Social Production of Art is the unspoken linchpin on which Shields’ argument balances. The denotative meaning of art is something conventionally rooted in time and place, as elements of historical and socio-economical influence, affecting a world or an epoch but not necessarily defining it. The connotative construct, on the other hand, is what tears art from the aesthetic-only and places it firmly within the realms of transformation and confrontation, where images are not images but symbols with meaning beyond their visually inscribed depths. In Shields’ patchwork manifesto, the adoption of words, images, and sounds across continents and through generations, with little fear given to the possible ramifications the appropriation of such work—displaced from their original culture, time, and intent—might have on an existing subset of social order, is the key to growing beyond our simple pre-existing pigeonholes of plot, genre, fiction, nonfiction, etc.


***


340

Found objects, chance creations, ready-mades (mass-produced items promoted into art objects, such as Duchamp’s “Fountain”—urinal as sculpture) abolish the separation between art and life. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen.

341

You don’t make art; you find it.


You pull literature from the world around you—from art, experiences, your very being. Your life isn’t linear, easily boxed into a square room on the 14th floor of a concrete obelisk at the heart of a city both isolated and not. Your life is shuffling through memories, thoughts, moods, feelings, and interpretations of events—none of it trickling out in anything approaching a pre-defined linear progression.

Shield seeks to throw out the existing forms—to do away with plot and, in the absence of plot, discover something more akin to the reality of experience. However, the thrust behind this challenge assumes that all art must challenge in the same fashion—discarding the same artifices of old, whether they benefit the concept or not. Should the concepts that fit more discretely into such a mould be more readily filtered through the guise of the new and exciting and very, very real? The manifesto, a call to arms for a new definition of artistic integrity, dilutes the simple pleasure of art for art’s sake, somewhat effacing the idea of aesthetic motivation warranting equal merit to avant-garde conceptualization and the splintering of accepted modes of operation.


***


419

The world exists. Why re-create it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else?


Does re-creation eliminate understanding or draw further attention to the possibilities therein? One’s definition of wisdom is not so easily constricted. Contemplation can just as easily refer to the presence of the real world, carved out of one context and placed within another. Do I feel a greater amount of contemplation is required before the commitment of pen to paper or brush to canvas? Absolutely. Does that negate the possible revelations that may follow rather than precede the art? Not at all. The recreation of the world and the reimagining of the world are not necessarily exclusive concepts. They are just as commonly married together, decided upon out of order, and able to impart wisdom to varying degrees in any number of circumstances, depending on the interpreter on hand.


***


540

Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics.

541

What you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her own limitations.

557

I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.


The limitations of the self, both pre-existing and stumbled upon through the creation of art or literature of any kind, can be discovered and overcome through methods of old, but Shield argues that the true test of one’s ability to overcome their limitations rests with the story being told, how the story is told, and in what sense the story’s redistribution is expected or not expected to upset all preconceived (naively so) iterations. The challenge is to accept the lies that might be spun from your truth, or the truth from your lies, and to willingly embrace all eventualities as equals—redefinitions of the private self made public.

This is art’s challenge—faced equally by the artefact, the process, and the creators: to accept adaptation from external sources—the good, the bad, and the truly offensive misdirection that might occur. Because there is no such thing as misdirection in a world of digital absorption and immediate global interpretation and reinterpretation.


***


573

To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.

574

He who follows another will never overtake him.

575

You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back.


Is the musician Gregg Michael Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, an artist or a thief? When he culls seconds worth of samples from hundreds of artists, is he stealing or reinterpreting the art through a new and entirely acceptable lens? What about BeyoncĂ©, caught for appropriating near identical choreography in one of her most recent videos without due credit to the originator—is this theft? Artistic reimagining? Are transparency and responsibility the deciding factors between which appropriation artists we accept and which we aim to crucify on the altar of public shame?

To steal from one is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. There isn’t a university student alive today who isn’t familiar with this axiom. Art, like academic research, has its roots in the inspiration of many. In an era where the acquisition and use of another’s art is tied intrinsically with the medium used to promote and further an individual artist’s identity, some say that digital rights protection is the answer—to restrict, through anti-piracy measures, the ability to download and appropriate another’s art for one’s own means. To others, anti-piracy measures are an opening salvo, a challenge to those willing to embrace the opportunities provided through a digital global village and circumvent the paranoid, the “artists” who refuse to accept a very simple truth that has been at the core of all art: that without the public’s involvement, without physical or conceptual connotative responses to a piece of work, art is not “art.”


***


615

What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: The Mere Future, by Sarah Schulman


Published: September 2009

Finally got around to it: October 2011


Spending money was now what we did at home. When no one was looking. This stuff on the street was fluff. A diversion.

We were marketed to at work, where we felt employed.

But once we stepped outside of the office, there was none of it. Not a trace.

Sophinisba had realized that the most traumatic and marking things in a person’s life happen in secret, in private. They often involve cruelty from someone you love or at least know. All of us are used to this. We don’t like it, but it’s now familiar to suffer indignities, to be dehumanized and lied to at home. For many of us, life has been that way since childhood. Then we grow up, love someone, trust them, and they hurt us. Again, AT HOME. We know nothing else.

Given this very common but unacknowledged truth, the violation of marketing is just another slap in a very full face. Assimilable.

But public, that’s another story. That is a place of display, and trust.

Now, we go home to cry. And to shop.


***


Sarah Schulman is one hell of an acrobat.

Over a trim 183 pages, Schulman manages to create and destroy a utopia (or the mythical image thereof) by offering society the very thing we want most of all—affordable housing. Then, without a word of warning, she slips the needle of marketing into our collective vein and whispers sweetly to us, telling us it will all be okay, all Albert Brooks-in-Drive style. All this while balancing family dysfunction, acceptance of gays and lesbians, the ramifications of eliminating the very concept of the poverty line, and the struggle for artists to define their worth in a social structure more akin to the post-modern communist Star Trek utopia, where everyone contributes to the grand schematic (or The Media Hub) in their own way.

The Mere Future is also dripping with lyricism, personality, and intricately—occasionally ridiculously—drawn individuals.

The novella begins with the introduction of a new Manhattan regime. Under newly elected Mayor Sophinisba Breckinridge, the city experiences The Big Change: the cost of living drops dramatically, homelessness is all but eliminated, and the art of marketing becomes the be all and end all profession. Personality matters, possibly more than ever, and notoriety is currency.

Schulman’s writing is sharp—intelligent without overwhelming her characters or the reader with the intellectual/sarcastic shorthand she employs progressively throughout the book. Instead of directing the characters to whatever forced endpoints her argument might have, she allows them to grow naturally and absurdly, to whatever endings suit their development under the veil of Mayor Sophinisba’s utopian dystopia.

It feels oddly coincidental that I would come to this title so soon after reading Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Though their narratives and structures are decidedly different, both writers are dystopian satirists, unafraid to let their subjective social criticisms rise to the forefront of their storytelling. But where Gartner’s collection of short fiction wanted to stand at the front of the class, yelling “Hey, look at me and how clever I am!” Schulman’s novella is content to let its diction and style evolve through the content and the characters—especially that of Harrison Bond, the dark, dissatisfied celebrity writer whose status, trembling as it is under the weight of past success, remains his greatest commodity.

The Mere Future carves a Spirograph design from the husk of a falsely placated Manhattan, winding through the cult of personality, all-purpose media marketing, and the impact sweeping change to an established social structure would have on a city’s inhabitants. Through the character of Harrison Bond, Schulman wraps the tightest coil of commentary around a figure so grossly representative of one of the major problems of the old world—celebrity status and its inherent power—that, in the shadow of the new, his extremes are amplified to take advantage of the full-time media circus that envelops and employs all. The greater the pariah, the greater the dividends.

The Mere Future is a wonderful companion piece to the pantheon of sort-of-but-not-quite-sci-fi dystopian literature. Schulman finds a near-perfect balance of commentary, sincerity, and wit with which to fashion her argument, without forcing resolution from content alone.

Review: Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, by Zsuzsi Gartner


Published: March 2011

Finally got around to it: October 2011


It’s difficult to say just how badly Nina is sweating inside her Olympic mascot costume, as even under ideal circumstances she is the Lance Armstrong of perspiration. If there were an Olympic medal for sweating, there she’d be, on the tier of the podium closest to heaven, her Athens-vintage Roots singlet plastered to her body, brandishing gold. She blames her Eastern European heritage, something hirsute and unfavourable embedded in her twist of DNA, combined with a childhood of pork fat, too many root vegetables, and polyester stretch pants. Yet there is something distinctly working class about excess sweat, which is why she’s never followed up on her mother’s suggestion (may she squirm in eternal unrest) that she have some of her eccrine glands removed. I secrete therefore I am, Nina liked to scoff. And really, is there anything more bourgeois than elective surgery?


***


Zsuzsi Gartner’s second collection of short fiction, Better Living Through Plastic Explosives, is an intelligently worded piecemeal manifesto attacking faux artists and film industry wannabes; a diatribe against the dysfunction of IKEA-first family living and the pomposity of motivational speakers that prey on the weak-willed and ignorant; a cynical, ice cold fist to the heart of teachers that shouldn’t be, and angelic youths that never quite make it off the ground. It is also laced with a bitterness that betrays any sense of character or humour that might have been found within.

The ten stories in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives run the gamut from personal tales of hurt and disgruntlement, as exemplified in the mother’s rant of “Floating Like a Goat,” to esoteric examinations of humanity and the randomness of youth as seen through the eyes of emotionally detached angels in “We Come in Peace.” What’s clear from the first page is that Gartner is a deeply intelligent writer.

That, and she’s got quite an axe to grind.

Similar to the work of Douglas Coupland, Zsuzsi Gartner’s prose is disaffected, removed from all personal intervention. She writes not with heart, but with a scientist’s curious disdain for a problem with no clear solution. Instead of characters and motivations or arcs, the stories contained in Better Living Through Plastic Explosives are platforms, the individuals within mere mouthpieces for the author to point her finger at the Olympics, or the Vancouver film industry, and say “Ah, ah, ah, you’re wrong and I’m going to tell you why you’re wrong.” Which would be fine, if in fact she followed through on this threat. Again, similar to Coupland, a lot is vented at, complained about, and singled out for criticism, but no answers are given. These narratives lack individual tone or a sense of momentum, instead piling on top of one another like so many dead trees worth of anti-this-or-that propaganda.

The trick to this collection, however, is in Gartner’s ability to divert the reader’s attention from the book’s missteps through parenthetical asides, footnotes to footnotes, and a curiously large amount of unfortunate repetition—using similarly obscure terms and descriptors, or pulling from the same well of pop culture examples across the stories with no reason to think that they’re deliberately tied to one another. Gartner’s card tower of “look how fucked up we are” mini essays—because it’s difficult to call stories without character anything but—is a mess of misdirection and misanthropy, filtered through an intellectual’s thesaurus of adjectives and archetypes.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Review: The Clockwork Century Saga, by Cherie Priest


Published:

Boneshaker: September 2009

Dreadnought: September 2010

Ganymede: September 2011

Finally got around to the lot of them: October 2011


What is certain is this: On the afternoon of January 2, 1863, something appalling burst out from the basement and tore a trail of havoc from the house on Denny Hill to the central business district, and then back home again.

Few witnesses agree, and fewer still were granted a glimpse of the Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine. Its course took it under the earth and down the hills, gouging up the land beneath the luxurious homes of wealthy mariners and shipping magnates, under the muddy flats where sat the sprawling sawmill, and down along the corridors, cellars, and storage rooms of general stores, ladies’ notions shops, apothecaries, and yes… the banks


***


Seattle novelist Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century novels are unique amongst genre fiction. While she relies on familiar and currently overworked sci-fi and fantasy tapestries of steampunk and zombies to provide the context for her alternative universe approach to the American Civil War, she does so with restraint, never letting the presence of such tropes overwhelm the narrative of each title or the overarching story.

The story of the first book in this series focuses on Briar Wilkes, her son Zeke, and a trek into the walled city of Seattle, where a mysterious gas called the Blight—released during the Boneshaker’s underground rampage—is turning humans into the walking dead, to ascertain the innocence or guilt of Zeke’s father in the incident that doomed the city. Boneshaker is a detailed primer for Priest’s world, introducing a wide breadth of characters—merchants, bionic tavern owners, Chinamen, sky pirates, and a mad scientist—that will flesh out the narrative of each book that follows in the series.

Like most first entries in a world-building series, Boneshaker spends a fair amount of time setting the stage for not just the incursion into a quarantined and dangerous version of Seattle, where the living dead—rotters—swarm the underground like a fast-moving plague, but for Priest’s vision of an America still in flux—still at war with itself, and grappling with the technological advantages and disadvantages that have changed the face of this version of America. However, the narrative moves along at a very fast pace, never getting bogged down in the details of the world outside of Seattle’s walls, nor forgetting the importance of character in building such a world.

Briar Wilkes, protagonist of the book, is a perfect example of the strength of character that runs through the entire series. Briar is a woman publicly scorned on the other side of the wall, by those who were forced to abandon Seattle when the Boneshaker released the Blight gas, but she refuses to lay down and let others trample her or condemn her for her former husband Leviticus Blue’s criminal and socially damaging actions. As Briar tracks her son Zeke through the dead city within the walls, meeting such interesting characters as the sky pirate Andan Cly and below-surface dwelling badass Jeremiah Swakhammer, she reveals a strength that is altogether uncommon with once-upon-a-time socialites during the American Civil War.


***


Mercy said, “An engine? Like a train engine? I don’t understand.”

The blond lowered his scope and said, “The rail lines around here, the run crisscross, all over each other, every which-a-direction. We commandeered the switches and posted up our lads to keep the Yanks’ cracker line squeezed off shut. But then they brought—”

The private interrupted him. “The Dreadnought. That’s what they call it.”

“My CO said he thought the damn thing was back east, over in D.C., watching over the capital after our rally there last month. But no! Those bastards brought that unholy engine all the way out here, and it mowed us right down. They took back their line in under and hour, and now they’re pushing us back. They’re pushing us back good,” he emphasized, and drew the lenses back up to his face. “Veer us left, Mickey,” he said to the driver. “I don’t like the look of the smoke kicking up to the east.”


***


Using an extended narrative approach, Priest shifts away from the walled city of Seattle and its unfortunate occupants and moves across the country, to Richmond, Virginia and a war hospital. Mercy Lynch, nurse and daughter of Jeremiah Swakhammer, learns of two tragedies at once: the death of her husband in the war, and the potentially life-threatening injuries suffered by her father at the end of Boneshaker. Deciding, in the wake of her husband’s death, that her future is uncertain, she embarks on the cross-country trek to reunite with the father that abandoned her sixteen years prior, and to potentially forge a bond with the only family she has left.

The journey takes Mercy through air and across the land via the rails. It’s not long before she finds herself passenger on the Dreadnought—a union war engine with a nefarious reputation. Throughout the journey, much of which takes place on the Dreadnought, she meets and interacts with civilians, military men, Mexican investigators, and a Texas Ranger with whom she discovers an unexpected kinship.

Besides the obvious character links between the two books, Dreadnought expands on the world introduced in Boneskaker through a greater discussion of the war and a frank investment in characters on both sides of the battle as they are brought together, transported across the country on a machine representative of the dangers of the era when tied to the hubris of warmongers. The narrative also expands upon the concept of the rotters, as introduced in Boneskaker. Sap, a powerful hallucinogen derived from the Blight gas released in Seattle, is being experimented with as a potential weapon for the union. The disease of the walking dead begins to spread into parts beyond the Pacific Northwest, and the growth and expansion of that threat begins to reveal itself as the X-factor that may come to resolve the war, one way or another.

Mercy continues Priest’s development of incredibly strong female leads in an era that did not pay women the same respect as men. Mercy Lynch is an intelligent, resolute character who straddles the line between the two halves of the war—observant and understanding of the reasons behind the contrasting views of the country, though not condoning of their machinations.


***


“How did Texas know about it?”

Hazel nodded approvingly, as if this was a good question. “It had been made with Texian technology, and Texian machinists, so they knew it was out there somewhere. They didn’t find it, though.”

“And your people did?”

Both of the women smiled, identically and in perfect time with each other. Hazel continues. “It took three weeks of looking, but the ship was found and lifted by a group of guerrillas in the bayou… the free men of color who fight Texas and the Confederacy as best they can from the shadows. They hauled it to a different shore and hid it there, where it remains now—waiting for the right man or men to take it all the way to the ocean, where it was always meant to go. And that, Captain Cly, is the story of the Ganymede.”


***


The third in Priest’s Clockwork Century saga, Ganymede, shifts the action to New Orleans and Josephine Early—a mixed race prostitute who has established herself as a social force to be reckoned with. Josephine and her brother Deaderick are neck-deep in the recovery efforts for a machine they believe will change the course of the war for whichever side controls the beast—a submarine of tremendous firepower called the Ganymede. As many mariners have failed to pilot the Ganymede down the Mississippi and out of the reach of Southern forces, Josephine seeks another avenue and enlists the help of an old flame, the sky pirate and current lover of Briar Wilkes, Andan Cly.

Like Boneshaker and Dreadnought, Ganymede is structured loosely around a device of immeasurable destructive capacity. The devices themselves are the root of the steampunk trappings found in all of Priest’s novels—singular advancements that have altered the course of American technological history and created this alternate universe. The devices themselves, lovingly described and uncomfortably mysterious, do not detract from the strong characterization in each book, rather they serve as the linchpins around which several strong personalities revolve.

Josephine Early is an intriguing companion piece to Briar Wilkes and Mercy Lynch: another very strong individual with ambitions for survival that outweigh perceived social placement. Josephine is, at the outset, the most forthright of Priest’s protagonists. She understands the power of her sexuality and the position of influence it gives her in the community, and is unwilling to compromise any of that, regardless of the pressure put upon her by the Texas occupation of her home.

Also carrying over from previous titles, the rotters—called zombis here—have made their way to the south, continuing their spread across the continent. It feels as if Priest is setting up the Sap/Blight gas-infected to be the counterweight that will invariably push both sides together in the war. Time will tell…

Ganymede, like the other books in this series, is detailed and intricately plotted. Most pleasantly surprising is that the affectations and mannerisms of this variant steampunk Civil War-era America never feel forced or out of place. There’s enough to sell the manufactured time period while retaining a contemporary feel for the characters and their motivations.

What separates the three titles most is the differing strength of the overall story. While Boneshaker remains the most plot- and setting-driven of the three, Dreadnought is the most thought provoking, taking necessary time to investigate both sides of the war at the heart of this series, humanizing all in the process. Ganymede, on the other hand, feels lighter on plot than the other two, but more than makes up for it through Josephine Early, her brother, the girls at the boarding house she runs, and deeper insight into the history of Andan Cly, who is quickly becoming one of the more exciting characters in the Clockwork Century saga.

Cherie Priest’s Clockwork Century saga could be classified as steampunk-light—offering gothic, horror, sci-fi and fantasy themes without overpowering the characters or politics at the centre of everything. The result is something that feels fresh and more intriguing than the individual parts would lead one, upon first glance, to believe.