Right after the great find that was “The Lesser Dead”, I wanted to read more of Christopher Buehlman’s work and settled on this shortish novel set in the era of the Great Depression. Here the main character is former WWI soldier Frank Nichols, still haunted by nightmares about his war experiences: he lost his job as a history teacher after starting an affair with the young wife of a colleague with friends in high places, so that he and Dora – who divorced her husband to follow Frank – seem to find a break in their difficult situation when Frank’s aunt leaves him a small inheritance and the deed to a house in Whitbrow, Georgia. Forsaking the aunt’s warning about selling the house and never setting foot in the place, the two decide to start a new life: Dora will teach at the local school and Frank will write a book about the cruel history of a nearby plantation, owned by one of his ancestors and the theatre of a bloody slave revolt.
Shortly after arriving in Whitbrow, though, the couple starts hearing vague warnings about never walking in the woods across the river – curiously enough, the location of the old plantation – and they are faced with a strange ritual: every two months, the village’s inhabitants release two pigs into the woods, following a tradition that seems almost festive, if it were not for the historical moment’s privations and the need to provide for more urgent needs. It goes without saying that the collective decision to bow to the time’s hardships will unleash an unstoppable chain of terrible events…
What’s fascinating in this novel is that the truly supernatural horror, whose origin is revealed a good way into the story, seems to take almost second place to a different, and more human-related kind of dread. Whitbrow is a stagnant place, not only as a result of the Great Depression (even though its mark is deeply felt), but more as the product of an age-old torpor that has taken possession of the minds and souls of its inhabitants, and that quickly ensnares Frank as well. The drive to write his novel is soon drowned in the daily visits to the local store, where he engages in endless checkers games with the patrons under the guise of gathering background information for his story, but in truth succumbing to the timeless inertia that seems to be the village’s modus vivendi.
Whitbrow’s dullness goes hand in hand with a deeply rooted distrust of strangers, of those who are different: this extends to both out-of-owners (their quick acceptance of Frank due solely to his family ties) and the truly different, like the homeless moving across the land and, of course, black people. There are a few scenes where the animosity toward these “aliens” is shown in no uncertain terms: given the recurrence of this phenomenon in our present times, the unwillingness of some to extend human consideration toward the less fortunate “outsiders”, these pages take on a far more chilling flavor than it was probably intended at the time they were written…
And then there is the closing of the villagers’ minds to anything new, to the possibility of attaining something better in one’s life: Dora’s struggle to keep the children in school when their families prefer to steer them toward field work, is one such example. There is one situation in which she and Frank go to the home of one of her most gifted pupils, in the hope of offering her more advanced schooling, and the scene that Buehlman depicts is both historically accurate and vivid, as they are met with cold indifference and mulish refusal from the girl’s father, and a sort of hopeless compliance from the daughter:
[…] looked up from the chicken she was plucking in the kitchen and peeked through the doorway, but she did not risk a hello. I guess she never knew exactly when to speak in this house, but with her daddy it was good to err in favor of silence.
After these all-too-real evils, the apparition of the true horror seems almost mundane, even though the discovery brings forth an abomination that goes back a long time, something that has always dwelled near the village – ignored and maybe conveniently forgotten. And this is where the story’s magic fell somewhat short for me: from the opening’s chilling preview to the big reveal there is an increasing sense of foreboding that unfortunately loses steam once the proverbial cat (or rather critter) is out of the bag and the carefully crafted buildup flounders in a great deal of anti-climatic exposition that does not fully realize the expectations I nurtured up to that moment.
All in all it was still a good read, but I’m sorry I cannot rate it as high as the previous book I sampled from this author, even though this slight disappointment will not prevent me from exploring further Mr. Buehlman’s work.
This GoodReads group proposes a weekly meme whose aim is to give a list of Top Five… anything, as long as they are book related.
This weeks’ topic is: BOOKS YOU WANT TO SEE AS TV SHOWS
This is a great topic indeed, particularly for me: my usual consumption of speculative fiction does not stop at books, but also includes a good portion of tv shows, so that the idea of a series taken from a book looks like having the best of both worlds.
The recent success of The Expanse – taken from the book series with the same name by James S. A. Corey, a saga I love beyond words – is indeed a case in point, so let’s see what else I would like to see translated on the small screen…
Every time I read – or revisit – a book from Lois McMaster Bujold’s VORKOSIGAN SAGA I think that it would be excellent material for a tv show: space opera, humor, politics and an interesting setting with wormholes connecting various colonized worlds. And of course Miles Vorkosigan himself, his family and friends (not to mention the foes): with the right casting this could turn out into a huge success, and also attract viewers who are not “into” science fiction, because the stories are not so much about spaceships and technology, but people. And people are always fascinating…
One of the most riveting book series I read lately is Pierce Brown’s RED RISING: set on Mars, where a strict class division forces most people to serve the ruling Golds, it follows the journey of a lowly Red – a miner who, like all of his people believes he’s working to terraform the planet for future generations, not knowing he’s being exploited by the Golds – who infiltrates the upper echelons of society, bent first on revenge and then on changing the rules. I often think that with good scripting and an enlightened choice of actors this could be for science fiction what Game of Thrones was for fantasy.
Urban Fantasy as a genre has been rising steadily, these past few years, both in reader appreciation and in number and quality of books. Two of my favorite series would lend themselves very well to a tv show: one of them is M.L. Brennan GENERATION V, that starts with the vampire trope in a new, fresh approach and through a main character that is both a reluctant blood-sucker and something of a wimp, at least in the beginning. His growth and the changes he undergoes make for a fascinating read and would be equally intriguing on a tv screen, and I would love nothing more than to see his interactions with Suzume the shapeshifter, friend, companion and thorn in the side.
The other book series that would be a great UF show is Seanan McGuire’s OCTOBER DAYE: half-human, half fae, October belongs to neither world and at the beginning of the story has lost everything that mattered to her. Slowly, as she plies her trade as a private investigator in a very peculiar San Francisco, where the mundane blends with the magical only for those who are able to see, she gathers a group of friends that become family and face with her the dangers of this world. It would be a great show, full of darkness and dangers, but also of wonder and love – and they had better do a careful casting for Tybalt. Just saying…
Last but not least, as I walk my way though Iain Banks’ CULTURE series, I ofter think they would translate into wonderful productions: they would be expensive, granted, because the “strange, new worlds” depicted there, the immense orbitals, the sentient ships or the talking drones of every shape and size would require an enormous amount of CGI, but it would be worth it, because these are stories that capture one’s imagination like no other. And the potential for social commentary offered by the Culture, a post-scarcity society where everyone can be whatever they want, is immense, especially considering that this virtual Paradise is not immune from some snakes.
What about you? What would you like to see next?
This series has been on my radar for some time now, the kind of series I keep telling myself I need to start, sooner or later, but for some reason always ends on the back burner. With the announced publication of a new series that would act as a sort of prequel to the Ryiria Revelations, I knew it was high time for me to jump on this train, and finding the first two volumes of the series in a very convenient omnibus seemed like the kind of final nudge I needed.
The Crown Conspiracy introduces the readers to the (mis)adventures of Hadrian Blackwater and Royce Melborn, two thieves-for-hire able to penetrate any location, no matter how secure, and to retrieve the objects required by their employers. For a price, of course. A widespread fame like theirs is however bound to attract the wrong kind of attention, so that Hadrian and Royce find themselves framed for the murder of the king of Melengar as part of a multi-layered political plot to change the balance of power in the realm. What follows is an adventurous romp through the country, with a kidnapped prince and, later, a very naive monk for company, on the run from the “bad guys” trying to capture and kill the two friends while advancing their dastardly plot. In Avempartha, Hadrian and Royce are hired to retrieve a powerful sword that’s the only weapon able to destroy the monster preying on an unfortunate settlement of farmers.
Both stories travel on a current of adventure laced with humor and witty repartees, and peppered with characters that seem quite intent on poking fun at some of the staples of the genre: the haughty prince who badly needs an eye-opener on the realities of the realm; the strong-willed princess who nevertheless needs saving; the powerful wizard speaking in riddles (and old-fashioned language); the farm girl with a Destiny; and the required dragon. But mostly the focus is, of course, on Hadrian and Royce, and the balance between brawn and brain they represent: Hadrian is more a man of action, a sword-wielder of great ability, while Royce is more proficient in lock-picking and in finessing their way out of trouble when needed – which means, almost always.
There are a few more serious issues explored in the books: the encroaching power of the religious faction, whose representatives are shown as dangerously manipulative; the treatment of elves, once a powerful force in the land and now reduced in virtual slavery, hunted and reviled as third-class citizens; the hints of a more enlightened past, whose higher achievements have become lost or forgotten. All of this makes for an engaging read and the curiosity to learn more – but…
Sadly, there is a “but”: as entertaining as the story is, as entertaining as the main characters are, something feels off-track. We don’t seem to learn a great deal about the two main characters, apart from the fact they are long-time associates, work well with each other and are very good at exchanging quips even in the most dire of situations. Moreover, much of the world’s background comes from huge chunks of “telling” as opposed to “showing”: the characters often (too often!) engage in long discussions about the past, or the current political situation, in a way that’s a bit too pedantic for my taste, and in so doing lose the momentum so far impressed to the story. The worst example of this can be found at the beginning of Avempartha, when Royce and Hadrian meet with some members of Royce’s old criminal guild: the leader of the group spends a great deal of time giving Hadrian a rundown of his friend’s past activities in the guild, with abundance of details, while the two are under the threat of physical harm. In my opinion, the unease generated by such an encounter is diluted by the conversational tone – and the overlong tale – to be as effective as it was probably meant to be.
Modern fantasy has led me to expect more from female characters, as well, and here I was less than satisfied with the offer: princess Arista looks, on the surface, like a strong-willed woman, but is soon revealed as too easily deceived (her continued blindness concerning a certain character becomes quickly irritating) and she is constantly in need of being saved, first from a false accusation of witchcraft (and a collapsing tower!) and later from being kidnapped by none less than a dragon. Young Thrace, the peasant-girl-with-a-destiny, is almost raped before the two friends save her (insert sarcastic eye-roll), and once she’s cleaned of the grime that covers her, is revealed as startlingly beautiful, and blessed with child-like innocence. The other woman of any relevance in the story is a whore with a heart of gold – at which I sighed heavily in despair, wondering if what I initially saw as amused fun thrown at some narrative tropes was not simply the unimaginative use of those tropes, instead.
This does not mean that I totally disliked the books, of course, to the point I’m willing to give this series another chance with the next two-volume omnibus in the hope to encounter some improvements in both characterization and narrative style: this series has received too many positive comments for me to give up on my first attempt. But I will need to find some stronger storytelling to keep on reading…
As you will see from the sign, I will be away for a two-week vacation, a much-needed stop to recharge my spent batteries🙂
Since I can’t be sure about the internet connection, I have scheduled a couple of posts, but I will most likely be unable to reply to any comments or to comment on your own posts. I promise, however, to do it on my return – cross my heart!
Happy reading and reviewing to you all!