Comic Club: AKIRA Volume 1 by Katsuhiro Otomo

Book Reviews

This post marks a couple of firsts for me; my first Comic Club and my first manga. And given it’s taking place during SciFi month where I’m talking all things cyberpunk, I thought what better way to mark the occasion than with Volume 1 of AKIRA, the classic and much beloved post-apocalyptic cyberpunk political thriller by Katsuhiro Otomo that –

Wait wait wait. I can’t go any further without getting one thing off my chest. This book isn’t cyberpunk. I mean sure, it’s on all the major lists of ‘must-read’ cyberpunk but, like, it isn’t cyberpunk? The only genre features I saw are the near-future setting (but that’s true of a lot of science fiction) and the prevalence of nihilistic youth subcultures. I’m not gonna get derailed cos I wanna talk about what the book is rather than what it isn’t, but it’s fairly universally agreed that the major theme of cyberpunk is technology and how it ‘sharpens the division between social classes’, but Akira is a story mainly about supernatural powers being exploited by the government and the military. But that’s a failure of marketing, not of the book, so end of sidebar.

Akira Volume 1 opens with the revelation that “at 2:17pm on December 6th 1992, a new type of bomb exploded over the metropolitan area of Japan” and that “nine hours later, World War III began”. Explosive stuff, pun intended. But this story isn’t about the war, but its aftermath. We’re immediately fast-forwarded to the city of Neo Tokyo in the year 2030, where me meet our main characters, Kaneda and Tetsuo, two juvenile delinquents and members of a criminal motorcycle gang. Their world is turned upside down after a road accident that begins to awaken paranormal powers in Tetsuo, making him the target of a shady government agency that will stop at nothing to prevent another catastrophe like the one that levelled Tokyo. At the centre of the agency’s motivation is a raw, all-consuming fear of an unthinkable, monstrous power known only as Akira.

I was very excited to read this book. It’s lauded as one of the greatest manga of all time, with great art that’s influenced the development of manga and comics ever since. But honestly, all I can say is…meh. I’m really sad about that because I was hoping to start Comic Club off with something I could get really excited about, but I just didn’t vibe with this much at all. It starts off with a lot of promise, introducing us to Neo Tokyo and the abandoned, off-limits ruins of the old city, and setting up an intriguing mystery I was looking forward to delving into. But as things developed there were a bunch of elements that I found increasingly tiresome. Far from the art being some of the best in the business, I actually just found it very confusing. Especially during the action sequences, I often found it difficult to follow what was happening; the panels didn’t follow on well from one another and even taken on their own, it was sometimes difficult to discern what some of the panels were even depicting. One of the things that grated on me quite a bit was the total overkill of the onomatopoeia comics are so fond of (stuff like POW! THWACK! KABOOM! etc), that when used well, and sparingly, can really add to the sense of atmosphere and action. In Akira though, there’s sooooo much of it and half the time I don’t even know what sounds they were supposed to be simulating. What does ‘POUM’ mean when depicting someone falling over? Or ‘POUTCH‘ when someone is being kicked? It was just annoying.

One other thing I want to mention too (and this is something that seems to be a convention in the limited amount of anime I’ve watched, and seemed to exist in this manga too) is expository dialogue and soliloquy. I’m no expert in Japanese storytelling, so maybe someone with more knowledge can confirm or debunk this. There’s just a lot of people saying pointless stuff out loud (sometimes when no one else is even around) just for the purpose of making the reader aware of it. I’m really not a fan of this kind of storytelling, usually it just shows that the writer isn’t skilled enough to work the point into the story or that they don’t trust their readers to draw the correct conclusions from what’s going on in the story. Sometimes both. Maybe I’m missing something?

Long story short, I never really got into this one and found myself skimming through the second half without much interest. I hope some of you might recognise what I mean when I describe the sensation of reading a really good book and not really being aware of holding the book in your hands because your mind is thoroughly in the story world; but then also the opposite feeling where you’re hyper aware of the book in your hands and your mind is still outside of the story even while you’re reading? That’s how I felt most of the time reading Akira. I might pick up the second volume just cos I’m a compulsive completionist and there’s a lot of unanswered questions at the end of Volume 1, but that’s nothing to do with the merits of the book, just my own idiosyncrasies. I didn’t enjoy this much but clearly a lot of people do, so I won’t warn you away from it, I just wouldn’t be actively recommending it to anyone.

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Review: REPO VIRTUAL by Corey J. White

Book Reviews

I’ve been impressed by the new cyberpunk I’ve been reading lately. I didn’t know if modern authors would have moved on from the retro-futurist vibes of their older counterparts, or whether they’d have anything worthwhile to say about 21st century capitalism. Honestly it’s about time cyberpunk moved on and had something worth saying again and REPO VIRTUAL does both of these things, and does them pretty darn well.

The opening chapter introduces Julius Dax, aka J.D., a young robotics repairman by day and, by night, an online ‘repoman’ in an online game called VOIDWAR, a kind of all-consuming futuristic version of EVE Online jacked up on crack. J.D. is doing what he can to get by in his shitty, unfulfilling day job and earn a buck or two in the augmented-reality city state of Neo Songdo, when he gets a call from his sibling offering him a job: steal a powerful piece of software from the reclusive tech billionaire whose company, Zero Corporation, effectively rules the territory of Neo Songdo. Turns out the software isn’t any old data cube though, and J.D. soon finds himself on the run, both from Zero Corporation when they blackmail an ex-covert ops spy out of retirement to hunt him down, and from the transhumanist tech-cult who hired him after he reneges on their deal.

Unlike a lot of older cyberpunk, with its grizzled, neo-noir loner protagonists, J.D. is a genuinely likable main character. He has a family he cares deeply about and a rocky on-and-off relationship with a guy you can tell makes him happy, despite their different outlook on how to live life in a world where rampant capitalism has all but crushed the spirit of the everyday inhabitants of Neo Songdo. This was a refreshing take and even though I love those grizzled neo-noir loner protagonists, I really enjoyed the focus on loving character relationships in Repo Virtual. It shows how cyberpunk is actually evolving. What was great about, say, Case and Molly’s relationship in Neuromancer was they clearly had an attachment to each other that went beyond just physical, but they were so alienated from the world and from each other that ultimately it could never work; I liked that and thought it made a powerful statement about how capitalism ultimately alienates us from our fellow humans. Corey J. White is saying something different, that despite that alienation we are still human and woe betide any CEO whose profits supersede our humanity.

This book also has fantastic, adrenaline-pumping action sequences. From arson-assisted burglaries and apartment shoot-outs to car chases through flooded city streets it stays true to enough of that heisty good stuff cyberpunk does so well, while still feeling very updated. One of the chase sequences also features enhanced and fully-functional versions of those terrifying Boston Dynamics dogs which, surprise surprise in a corporate dystopia, have been sold to the police department (but also get hacked and repurposed by computer nerds, which is also just so cyberpunk I love it).

If this book is anything to go by, I feel like the tone of modern cyberpunk may be shifting too? It’s not a coincidence that cyberpunk originally flourished in the age of Reaganomics, the Washington Consensus and the ascendance of neoliberal capitalism as an uncontested power on the world stage. It’s no wonder that in that context the genre was incredibly pessimistic about the potential for effective opposition to that power, but I hope I’m not misplaced in glimpsing a tiny shred, if but a kernel, of hope in the modern genre. Hope is probably the wrong word, perhaps resistance would be more fitting. And I think that development would be also be fitting for our own age, when resistance does seem possible, even if against overwhelming odds sometimes.

The fact that J.D is a Black gay protagonist is also something rarely seen in cyberpunk, which has a reputation for being a bit of a white dudebro kind of genre, sometimes unfairly perhaps, but definitely not without reason. The fact that there are lesbian characters, a trans police officer and J.D’s sibling Soo-hyun is non-binary, all gives me hope that cyberpunk might finally be starting to reach its own potential. For a genre awash with such advanced biotechnology it really shouldn’t have taken this long for it to start exploring ideas around gender identity. Thankfully Corey J. White has dragged cyberpunk kicking and screaming into the year 2020 and with it he’s also consigned a bunch of the shittier stereotypes of the genre to the dustbin of history. In fact, that dustbin is steadily overflowing with the garbage of the past as Corey cheerily throws more scrunched up paper balls of outdated shit over his shoulder. It was delightful to read.

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Review: BUSTED SYNAPSES by Erica L. Satifka

Book Reviews

The last review I wrote was for William Gibson’s Neuromancer, one of the earliest trailblazers of cyberpunk literature. Well, BUSTED SYNAPSES is the newest addition to the canon and I can confidently say this book gives me so much hope for the future of the genre. Where most cyberpunk takes place in massive conurbations of built-up urban sprawl, with towering skyscrapers bathing the city streets in their neon glow, Erica L. Satifka has imagined a near future where the cities have become the sole domain of the 1%. And so Busted Synapses tells the story of Jess and Dale, two working class friends struggling to make ends meet in the small town of Wheeling, rural West Virginia, who become entangled in a corporate conspiracy after they meet a runaway android that decides to whistleblow on the horrors committed by the powerful Solfind Corporation.

What I loved about this story was its focus on the everyday struggles working class people face. Don’t get me wrong, I love old school, adrenaline-pumping cyberpunk action about down-and-out computer hackers and underworld crime rings, but they aren’t always all that relatable, ya know. In Jess and Dale though, we have two main characters you can really understand. They work precarious jobs always under immanent threat of automation, with precious few labour rights and constantly weighed on by the stress of paying off student debt and the prohibitive cost of health insurance. Dale makes a few extra coins by taking part in a virtual reality battle royale simulation, which is ostensibly a kind of recreational video game, but in reality exists for the entertainment of the rich minority and feels very much like a new kind of futuristic gig economy platform job you can take up if you’re struggling to pay the rent.

It also addresses the problem of imminent climate catastrophe, which is gonna be difficult for any modern cyberpunk author to ignore going forward. In the book most of the coastal cities on the Eastern Seaboard have been destroyed by freak storms that killed most of population and displaced the rest, leading the gutted remnants of an overwhelmed neo-liberal government to hand over rescue and reconstruction efforts to Solfind. Honestly this felt very contemporary and very possible. The idea that developed nations will be the last to experience the consequences of climate change has most definitely been put to rest now, after the horrific wildfires we saw recently in Australia and California. And just as in the book, we don’t have to look very far to see how corporations profit from disaster; the ‘reconstruction’ of Iraq was largely contracted out to private companies after we bombed it into the ground and here in the UK private companies with no experience of producing medical equipment have been awarded multi-million pound contracts to produce PPE by exploiting corrupt links with government ministers. This is where modern cyberpunk really has the opportunity to grow, by shining a light on the way capitalist economies already function and showing how things might end up if corporate power continues unchecked, and Erica Satifka does this very well.

I do wish the book had been longer though. There were parts of the plot that felt like they unfolded too quickly and some character relationships that I’d like to have seen developed more, which could have made the story hit harder and could have been resolved by having a longer word count. Truth be told though, deep character studies aren’t usually what I’m after when I read cyberpunk, so this wasn’t much of an issue for me, just something to be aware of for those of you who enjoy deep character dives.

Early cyberpunk had inherent criticisms of the corporate dystopias it portrayed (despite the pessimism that any form of collective struggle could overcome them) but as the genre developed it definitely stagnated, becoming more focussed on aesthetics than it was about critiquing the end point of late stage monopoly capitalism. Busted Synapses is the shot in the arm the genre needs. It has that gritty techno-pessimism that’s at the heart of cyberpunk, and it doesn’t offer a rosy picture of the future or indeed offer any solutions, but it has done what modern cyberpunk needs to do in order to have a future, and that’s start critiquing the corporatism of our own society which, in many ways, is manifesting the very dystopia the progenitors of the genre warned us about decades ago. Busted Synapses does that and it makes me very excited that writers like Erica L. Satifka are pulling cyberpunk out of the stagnant ditch it got stuck in for too long. Solidly recommend this book.

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Review: NEUROMANCER by William Gibson

Book Reviews

NEUROMANCER. Probably not the first cyberpunk novel (if it’s even possible to identify such a thing) but arguably the one that had the most influence on the development of the genre and, from a personal perspective, the first one I ever read. There’s so much juicy cyberpunk goodness to dig into here, from cyberspace-faring console cowboys to nihilistic terrorist subcultures, from vat-grown Yakuza assassins to rogue artificial intelligences taking on the ever vigilant Turing Police, this book is pure cyberpunk.

It’s the story of a down-on-his-luck hacker called Case, once the best data-thief in the business who made the mistake of trying to steal from his employer. Now neurologically crippled by his vengeful former boss, he’s no longer capable of jacking in to ‘the matrix’. That is until he’s offered a cutting edge cure by a new, enigmatic employer in return for taking on one last heist. Working alongside a ‘razorgirl’ street samurai and the reconstructed consciousness of his dead mentor, Case must unravel the puzzle of his mysterious employer while pulling off the most daring job of his life.

I love this book. I’ve read it several times now and every time that opening chapter hooks me right in. Straight away we’re drawn into the seedy underbelly of Night City in all its infamy and ill-repute. The dive bars frequented by drug dealers and pimps, the street vendors hawking illegal software and black market weapons beneath the counter, the hustlers and the smugglers and the black market clinics dealing in experimental biotechnology and gene-editing techniques. Gibson sums up the dystopia of his setting and the complete domination of multinational corporations in this world of monopoly capitalism in this opening chapter when he describes Night City as ‘a deranged experiment in social Darwinism, designed by a bored researcher who kept one thumb permanently on the fast forward button’. That description highlights the lack of control the powerless underclass of the book have to affect any change in the world around them and is really what Case is rebelling against throughout the story.

The weird thing about Neuromancer for me is that it isn’t hyper focussed on character, which is usually a big deal for me. And by that I don’t mean the characters aren’t interesting, they’re very interesting people, I mean this is less a story about diving deep into the inner workings and relationships between individual characters than it is about people fighting systems of power in whatever limited ways they’re able. I realise those things aren’t mutually exclusive, and maybe it could have been a better book if there was more focus on character, but for me it didn’t matter. The star of this show is the setting and the way people interact with technology, and that’s coming from someone who usually thinks character is paramount.

One thing I will say though is don’t necessarily expect to feel comfortable immediately because Gibson does not over-explain anything. You get dropped into this familiar-yet-jarring world and you’re expected to roll with it and do your best to keep up. It’s actually one of the things I love about this book, that the world has its own vernacular that can be quite rattling and unsettling to start with, but which does become second nature after a while. I think its a very clever narrative technique where the fragmented dialogue and disjointed jumps from scene to scene mirror the kind of uncontrolled disintegration of the hyper-globalised, postmodern setting. I’d liken the sensation of reading Neuromancer to somehow being able to watch unstable atoms undergo radioactive decay in real time at an alarming rate.

If you’re new to cyberpunk this is honestly a fantastic place to start and somewhere you quickly become acquainted with all the hallmark trappings of the genre. A fantastic book that changed the direction of science fiction for a generation.

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Review: THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN by Michael Clark

Book Reviews

I do love a good haunted house tale, and what better time to disturb the ghouls, ghosts and spirits than the height of spooky season? THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN has that nice, simple premise – a haunted house with a dark mystery to solve before the spooks and scares get out of hand and escalate into something altogether more dangerous. Enter our main character, Tim Russell. Recently divorced and looking for a new business venture, Tim buys an old, dilapidated house in rural New Hampshire, looking to refurbish and flip it for a tidy profit. Things start going awry almost immediately though, when the ghosts of a little boy and a woman covered in flies make it clear he isn’t welcome there…

I said in a tweet once that the more notes I make while I’m reading a book directly correlates with my lack of enthusiasm for said book. Unfortunately I made a lot of notes about THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN. For me the bedrock of any story is the characters. If an author writes good characters who feel like real people and make their mark on a story then I’m probs gonna like the book, even if it’s flawed in other ways. The characters here are just so forgettable though, I couldn’t bring myself to care about them or anything they did. A lot of things intertwine here (which is why ‘writing good characters’ isn’t a simple thing) so I’m gonna do my best to unravel why the characters, and ultimately the book, fell flat for me.

Ok, so the way the plot unfolds totally robs the characters of any agency. Once the story gets going the main thrust of the book is Tim and his estate agent/new girlfriend Holly (and boy do I have thoughts about that too) are trying to solve the mystery of the circumstances surrounding the ghost’s deaths. To give Clark credit, the mystery is actually quite interesting, but Tim and Holly don’t really do anything to solve it. Instead, most of the mystery is already laid out for them in a collection of journals the previous owner left and the only barrier to its resolution is just a matter of how quickly they can read the darn things. Holly has one proactive idea and any loose ends after that are simply relayed to them in their dreams while they sleep. The end result is they don’t even feel like characters, just avatars, lifeless puppets the author strings up and drags through the book as tools of the plot. It felt like they could be replaced with any two other random people, reskinned avatars, and the story would have played out exactly the same way.

Their behaviour was just nonsensical in places too. And I don’t mean that in the sense they made bad decisions – characters making bad decisions, throwing spanners in the works and dealing with the consequences is what gets me up in the morning man, that shit is my ambrosia – no, I mean these guys just flat out make decisions that make no sense, sometimes even in contrast to their own internal motivations. And again, the only discernible reason is so the author can drag them into scenes he wanted to write that otherwise wouldn’t happen. I just couldn’t accept their dialogue as real either. The way they talked to each other rang so false. It was stiff and drawn out and unnatural, just not how people talk.

One final critique before I finish on a positive note, and that’s the point of view. It’s written for the most part in third person omnipotent, meaning there’s an all-knowing outside narrator telling us the story. I feel like this was just a mistake and it was only written this way so we could be whisked off near the end of the book to tie up the loose ends of the mystery in what turns out to be quite an unsatisfying way and gives knowledge to the reader that Tim and Holly would have no way of knowing, given that these scenes are largely constructed out of second-hand journal entries. That’s sort of by the by though; for the most part I just though this was a mediocre and poorly-written book right up until near the end, where I felt like I was deliberately misled about An Event purely for a cheap shock. The supposedly ‘omnipotent’ narrator tells you something happens, only for that thing not to have happened at all and I just felt betrayed at that point. Like, pick your writing style and stick to it man. You can’t have an omnipotent narrator so you can skirt round the edges of resolving your central mystery, just to then decide to abandon it at the eleventh hour for a cheap shock.

Look, clearly I didn’t enjoy this book, but it’d be remiss of me not to mention the things I did think were good. There are some genuinely scary, chilling moments; I think Clark does a good job of writing the ghostly scenes and I genuinely shuddered at times with the creepiness of it. I have quite a vivid mind’s eye and the images he conjured in my imagination creeped me the fuck out at times (I’ll never look at at rolled-up newspaper the same way again, that’s for sure). And the mystery Tim and Holly uncover about the history of their spectral housemates is engaging and there was a period about halfway in where did feel like the book picked up and for a while I was actually quite engrossed, though in the end it wasn’t concluded in a satisfying way.

I’ll just finish by saying don’t necessarily take my word for it. I personally didn’t like this book, but Rin at The Thirteenth Shelf also reviewed it recently and had a better experience, so def check out her review as well. Obviously I wouldn’t recommend THE PATIENCE OF A DEAD MAN, but if you are looking for something to read over the Halloween weekend, check out my reviews of The Year Of The Witching and Mexican Gothic, two new horror releases I read and reviewed recently that I whole heartedly recommend.

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Review: THE FIRST OF SHADOWS (The Riven Realm #1) by Deck Matthews

Book Reviews

I’ve got to say, this is the first time I’ve encountered an epic fantasy novella. And when this book opened with a tense and thrilling fight scene I could tell I was in for a wild ride. THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is only 143 pages long, but within that small wordcount Deck Matthews delivers a fast-paced story with lively, solid world building and a wonderful cast of characters that has the vibe of a classic fantasy while still feeling very fresh.

We’re thrown right into the thick of things here, no messing about. Thrust into the perspective of an unnamed drifter carrying an item of great power, a mysterious man tracked and hunted along the Blasted Coast by a malevolent creature intent on his demise. This is the only opportunity we get to see the world from the drifter’s perspective and this opening chapter works as a kind of mini prologue, introducing us to the world of Relen-Kar and setting the tone and pace for the rest of the book. It works very well, because the pace of this book never lets up.

In a whirlwind of plot development and character arcs we’re introduced to Caleb, a rigger on a docked sky ship on the Blasted Coast; Avendor Tarcoth, a senior military officer stationed in the capital city of Taralius; and Tiberius Alaran, a sage and scholar who also lives in the capital. Caleb’s story centres on his choice to help the drifter (who we do learn more about but I’m being deliberately vague to avoid spoilers) in his flight from the creature which is hunting him and refuses to die. Along the way we learn more about the drifter’s identity, the magic he wields and how Caleb chooses to respond when he’s swiftly sucked up in this maelstrom of chaos. There’s very much the classic fantasy farm boy vibe to Caleb and I get the sense that he’s gonna end up doing some wild, crazy and powerful things later in the series and his arc in this first book felt a lot like his origin story. It was kind of cool actually, cos at this point in the series he really isn’t a major player; in fact, everyone around him, from ‘The Drifter’, to Palawen Ty and Tanner, they’re the powerful seasoned mages, warriors and veteran adventurers, while Caleb is doing what he can with very little experience and power beyond his own resilience and bravery. Just shows how powerful that combination can be.

Avendor Tarcoth’s storyline was my fave to follow along with though (probably because I love a good mystery) and we’ve got a doozy of a murder mystery on our hands here. Thrust right into the thick of things again (I did say this book’s pace is relentless) our first scene with Avendor drops us into his gruesome discovery of the corpse of a murdered apothecary and a strange mound of something resembling human flesh. Matthews’ writing in this scene is superb, delivering up the sights and smells and atmosphere of the investigation in full technicolour detail and dropping lovely tidbits of worldbuilding throughout, all while succinctly introducing us to Avendor and the cast of characters surrounding him. The cast of side characters is surprisingly extensive for a novella and for the most part are very well done. Shevik Den, a sky pirate and Caleb’s associate being one of the most notable. Some are a bit tropey and slight caricatures, such as Kharl, Caleb’s bully and tormentor, but that didn’t take enough away from the book to make it any less enjoyable.

I’ve gotta say though, I think Matthews truly excels in his writing of Tiberius. Tiberius is a blind sage whose scenes are written without reference to visual stimuli. Smells, sounds and other sensory perception are used to great effect and actually visibly improves the writing of the book even in scenes where Tiberius isn’t present. When it comes to a satisfying reading experience a lot of it comes undeniably from being able to visualise the scenes in my head, but for a world to feel truly fully-realised, three dimensional and real, I think it’s necessary to get a sense of what it would feel like to stand in its buildings and streets, and that demands a more rounded, multi-sensory approach. What are the scents, aromas and odours you’d smell when walking through the streets of Taralius? What would it sound like to stand in the wake of a skyship taking off into the night sky of Stormholt? I really got a great sense of this and I think it’s the mark of a great fantasy book that, despite its fantastical and wholly fictional settings, can make you feel grounded and present in its world.

There’s a ton of worldbuilding crammed into the small word count of this novella too and I definitely feel I got a crash course in the history and magic of The Realm of Relen-Kar without ever feeling like it was forced down my throat. I am writing this review a few weeks after finishing the book though, and one thing I will say is I don’t really remember many of the historical figures, city names and magical vocabulary. Maybe that’s just the nature of the beast when writing epic fantasy novellas. It definitely worked in the moment, is very enjoyable and it is written into the story incredibly well, I just find that there’s so much thrown at the reader in such a short word count I’d definitely need a refresher before I start the next book.

All told THE FIRST OF SHADOWS is such a refreshing take on the epic fantasy genre and shows how innovative self-published books can be; I can’t imagine a traditional publisher would be willing to take the risk on short, episodic epic fantasy novellas in a genre so dominated by the doorstopper tomes of Sanderson et al. Great characters, rip-roaringly fast paced, interesting magic system and still so much more potential to be unleashed in future instalments. This is a great book and I’m looking forward to delving further into The Riven Realm.

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Review: CARRIE, SALEM’S LOT & THE SHINING by Stephen King

Book Reviews

Ok so a while ago I mentioned I was embarking on a project to read Stephen King’s entire back catalogue in order. I’m making very slow progress to be honest, other shiny books keep capturing my attention and keeping me from moving forward. I have read his first few though, and instead of writing full reviews for every King book I read (cos that guy has wrote a lot of books) I’m gonna do mini reviews three at a time. Here’s what I thought of the first three King books.

King’s debut novel revolves around Carrie White, an unpopular friendless misfit and bullied high-school girl from an abusive religious household, who uses her newly discovered telekinetic powers to exact revenge on those who torment her. I started this with little idea of what to expect writing wise. I’d seen the film before, so I knew the story, but this was my first foray into King’s fiction, and from the reputation the guy has I assumed this was going to be a great read. In the end, it was fine. A decent enough read at the time but hardly memorable, with some bits I thought just didn’t work. It’s a very raw book and is unrelenting in examining how cruel people can be and in the end is a sad tale of the tragic consequences of torment and revenge. Special mention to Carrie’s mother Margaret, who is a genuinely great character. A religious fanatic with a very difficult history, a woman full of bitterness and self-loathing that she projects onto her daughter in the most appallingly abusive ways. She’s a detestable woman, but someone with a wretched past that manifests itself in ways that you can abhor, but definitely understand. I didn’t get why this was an epistolary novel though? It added nothing to the story and distracted me quite a lot from what was going on. Also, having read King’s book On Writing before this, where he laments that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’, I’m just saying there sure are a lot of adverbs in this book…

Salem’s Lot on the other hand is a much better story. It centre’s on main character Ben Mears, a writer who returns to his hometown to discover that many of the town’s residents are becoming vampires. Aside from having two deeply sinister villainous characters in Kurt Barlow and his ‘business partner’ Richard Straker, Salem’s Lot excels at pulling back the curtain on the dark, depraved lives people lead behind closed doors. The vampire story is good, but it’s the examination of this dark side of the people who live in Salem’s Lot that really made this story work for me. My main criticism is that King had a tendency to ramble on at times, a tendency I would soon discover was not, unfortunately, a one-off.

The Shining centres on the life of Jack Torrance, a struggling writer and recovering alcoholic who accepts a position as the off-season caretaker of the historic Overlook Hotel in the Colorado Rockies. His family accompanies him on the job, including his young son Danny Torrance, who possesses ‘the shining’, a psychic ability that allows him to see the hotel’s horrific past. Before long a winter storm leaves the family isolated and the supernatural forces inhabiting the hotel start affecting Jack’s sanity, putting his wife and son in terrible danger. While I found Carrie a bit meh, and Salem’s Lot good-but-rambly, The Shining was the first time I was truly impressed by King. Watching Jack’s slow descent into menacing insanity, haunted by his past and the consequences of his alcoholism, was a distressing and unnerving experience and there were points in this book where I was genuinely fearful.

Since finishing these books I’ve also read The Stand (and have actually already read and reviewed Pet Sematary, way out of order) and hope to move on to The Dead Zone soon. I’m in two minds about whether to include his novels written under his pseudonym ‘Richard Bachman’, but at the moment I’m leaning towards ‘yes’, so there’s a decent chance I’ll also read Rage and The Long Walk before that. Anyway, I’ve been saying I’d start on this project proper for a while now, so I’m glad I’ve finally begun!

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Review: THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS by Stephen Graham Jones

Book Reviews

THE ONLY GOOD INDIANS is like nothing I’ve ever read before. Described as a tale of revenge, cultural identity and the cost of breaking from tradition, it follows four Native American men who are tracked and hunted by a malevolent entity after a disturbing event from their youth puts them in a desperate struggle for their lives, leaving them helpless as the culture and traditions they left behind catch up to them in a violent, vengeful way.

I’ll tell you what I loved about this book, and that’s the superb characterisation and atmospheric tension-building. Lewis, Gabe and Cass are such real characters. They’re no saints, they’re deeply flawed in many ways and yet they’re fundamentally good, worthy people. There’s an almost twisted slice-of-life vibe to the first part of the book where we’re invited into Lewis’ life as a postal worker, meet his partner, friends and his dog while slowly watching him psychologically unravelled by the weight of his guilt. One of my favourite things about this book is that for a long time I couldn’t tell if there was anything supernatural going on at all or whether this was more of a psychological horror about the effects of guilt, remorse and the lengths people can go to in their search for redemption. The truth is it’s both, and for me great horror writers are the ones who are able to tell a story about the human experience while tying it up in some aspect of otherworldliness. I realise that sounds pretentious as anything haha, but when you dissect good horror I think that’s what it is, and Jones excels at it.

There’s a fair amount of gruesome violence and I’d forgive you for rolling your eyes and dismissing this book if I was to describe it as slasher revenge horror, and it kind of is, except that it’s also very smart and doesn’t resemble any of the tropey mess that makes up the core of that genre. Instead there’s genuine tension and palpable fear, uncertainty is instilled in the minds of both the reader and the characters and the result is a story that feels both vibrant and unnerving. It’s a book whose premise is deeply-rooted in Native American history, mythology and culture and while I was unfamiliar with most of these references prior to reading the book, it was still accessible enough to someone as ignorant as I am to still grasp how important this culture is to the characters and still feel compelled by the plot. In fact one of the strongest parts of this story was the complicated relationship the characters have with their own culture and is a major theme of the book.

The Only Good Indians is a strange book with a unique writing style that worked for me in some ways but did leave me confused in others. It’s an unsettling horror book and there’s this combination of colloquial, but also disjointed, prose that’s pretty darn masterful at keeping you simultaneously comfortable and close to the characters and yet really on edge the whole fucking time. Having finished the book I can absolutely see what Jones was doing with his storytelling and I appreciate his skill in pulling it off (it’s actually quite impressive from a craft perspective) but sometimes it took a lot of work to keep on top of and there was more than one occasion where I had to skip back a few pages to make sure I knew what was happening. I went into this book knowing nothing about the author, or even a great deal about the plot, and just wasn’t prepared for how unorthodox the writing would be, so I’d say if you’re into unsettling horror with some pretty gruesome violence you should read The Only Good Indians, but be aware going in that you’re just gonna have to roll with the weirdness at times and accept it and I think you’ll get a lot more out of it that way. Overall an unnerving, challenging book with lots of smart things to say about the development of indigenous culture.

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Review: THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING by Alexis Henderson

Book Reviews

First off you can’t tell me you looked at that cover without wanting to drop whatever you’re doing and charge through the doors of the nearest bookshop to demand they sell you a copy right now. I mean I guess you could, but I wouldn’t believe you, cos it’s actually not possible. That daguerreotype picture, the gold lettering, the fucking blood splatter. Don’t let anyone tell you covers don’t sell books; I was hooked on this well before I knew anything about the plot or the author. And a good thing too, cos THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING might well turn out to be one of my top books this year!

It’s the story of Immanuelle Moore, a young mixed race woman in the puritanical settlement of Bethel, where the Prophet’s word is law and women are expected to be meek and obedient. Her white mother’s union with a black ‘outsider’ has cast her once proud family into disgrace and rumours of her ancestors consorting with the witches of the Darkwood cause many to look on Immanuelle with fear and suspicion. When a chance mishap forces her into the depths of the woods and she finds herself face to face with those same witches, Immanuelle begins to confront why her mother chose to consort with them, while uncovering even darker secrets surrounding the prophets and the stifling theocracy that rules over Bethel.

I expected this book to be dark, but I didn’t expect it to be this dark. There’s a lot of troubling themes explored, from severe misogyny and racism, to paedophilia and sexual assault. Like the best horror stories, it shows us that the most disturbing things that can happen to us are all to real and are committed not by witches and monsters, but by people and the oppressive systems that rule over our lives. I really came to despise the Prophet and his egomaniacal lust for power, but what this book did well was put him in context; he’s the result of a social system that places people like him beyond reproach and all others (but especially women, and even more especially, black women) as subject to his whims and desires, dressed up though they are in the words of holy scripture.

Opposed to this it would have been easy to root for Immanuelle regardless, but Alexis Henderson didn’t take anything for granted. Immanuelle is everything. I’d probably die on a pyre myself to save her from all the shit she goes through in this book (and reader, she wades through a ton of shit). She’s a mixed race woman in a white society that quite literally frames whiteness as all that is good and holy, and blackness as cursed and evil; she’s a woman in a violently patriarchal society, where men can take as many wives as they wish (literally carving sigils into their wives foreheads to display ownership) while women are subjected to corporal punishment for the crime of ‘tempting’ men into indiscretions. Despite this, Immanuelle is strong-willed and refuses to be entirely ground down by her oppressive environment. She’s still very much a part of her society though and conforms to most of the strict customs demanded of her. Henderson does a phenomenal job of portraying the contradictory push and pull of these two forces shaping Immanuelles’s actions and changing views of the world as she navigates through the story and, for me, that was one of the most compelling parts of this book.

And what is any horror story without a hefty dose of atmosphere? Henderson absolutely nails this. From the oppressive puritanical land of Bethel, to the Darkwood with its legends of witches and missing children, to the horrifying effects of the plagues that promise to be unleashed should Immanuelle fail to defeat the power of the vengeful witches of the wood. I was honestly pretty well freaked out at parts of this story, it was really bloody disturbing actually. It’s a tale built on tropes we’re very familiar with, but Henderson wields them with such power and skill that they buzz with a seemingly uncontrolled energy that fills your imagination with horror and anger and hope all at once, finally building to a crescendo that floored me stone dead. And when I say that I mean I was listening to the audiobook on my walk to work and literally stopped in my tracks, standing stock still, mouth hanging wide at the nightmare that was unfolding before me.

THE YEAR OF THE WITCHING is utterly compelling, horrifying and knows exactly what it wants to say and doesn’t flinch at saying it. It explores some very difficult topics with a deft skill that still doesn’t shirk from laying bare the injustice and abuse of power on show. And it’s all told in a perfectly-paced story that sticks the knife in at just the right moment, lets you rest, think you might be ok and then twists that fucker in again. Alexis Henderson is a wonderful writer and, given that this is her debut novel, I’ll no doubt be reading everything she publishes forevermore.

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Review: BAPTISM OF FIRE (The Witcher #3) by Andrzej Sapkowksi

Book Reviews

Ah, feels good returning to my poorly-written guilty pleasures haha. I’ve had complicated feelings about The Witcher books so far. They’re not very good and I wouldn’t for a second recommend anyone actually read them, but I sort of enjoy them regardless. I dunno, they just have a kind of raggedy charm, like an old scabby dog that just wants to be your friend. Having read the two short story collections and the first two novels, how did number three fare?

Not as entertaining as the first two novels unfortunately, though still enjoyably shit. At the end of Time Of Contempt all hell broke loose and I was ready for things to kick up a gear in BAPTISM OF FIRE, with lots of intricate kingdom politics and armies on the move, scheming mages conniving behind closed doors, and Geralt maybe finally becoming…interesting? We get some of this in a very patchwork sort of way, but what I really got struck by was just how much the pace of this book slooowed everything the fuck down. Like too much. Geralt actually just spends most of his time being injured, slowly trying to make his way to Nilfgaard in pursuit of Ciri, though meeting quite the colourful cast of characters along the way which, admittedly, was very enjoyable.

First he meets Milva, a baller archer who stalks the forests of Brokilon. She’s not very interesting actually but we do get an absolute treat when Sapkowski uses her knowledge of archery to give us a much-too-long lesson on composite bow craftsmanship. It was totally self-indulgent and absurd but I lived and loved and laughed while reading it. Anyway, she joins the party for this book and decides to travel with Geralt. Obviously Dandelion turns up, everyone’s favourite misogynist (I’m still bitter about his antics in the short stories), as well as a medicine man harbouring a dark secret who becomes an unlikely ally. My favourite addition to the troupe though was the dwarf, Zoltan Chivay, and his band of mercenaries, who provide some good old rollickin’ humour.

Ciri, meanwhile, is absolutely nowhere near where Geralt thinks she is, having made a home for herself with the notorious group of brigands known as The Rats. I really like the direction Ciri’s story has forked off in, it’s far from the noble hero coming to the rescue of the helpless princess; for one thing Geralt is totally mistaken as to her whereabouts, so he’s actually not coming to rescue her at all, but also Ciri trained to be a witcher herself and, despite being a politically-important princess, is becoming quite a brutal criminal on the fringes of society. I really can’t tell where her story is going, but I’m intrigued to find out.

The part of this book I found disappointing though was the newly-formed Lodge of Sorceresses. Philippa Eilhart founds The Lodge after leading the coup against The Brotherhood of Sorcerors. The idea itself is amazing. A disparate group of female mages from conflicting sides of the nascent war coming together to set aside their political allegiances and elevate the cause of magic above the interests of petty kingdoms. It has so much potential for the various members to be distrustful of one another, for backstabbing, fear of backstabbing and all the conflict that could arise with it. All this conflict actually does play out but it’s made very difficult to buy into because Philippa Eilhart just straight up tells all the members her plans before they even know why the first meeting has been called and (crucially) before they’ve agreed not to go straight back to their respective kingdoms and spill the beans to the various kings. It made no sense! None, not a bit. Throughout all these scenes I was left scratching my head about whether I was missing some vital piece of the puzzle that allowed all this to make sense. I’ve read enough Sapowski now though to know I probably wasn’t haha.

You know what though, I still enjoyed this book despite its many flaws. There’s a big part of me that wishes I could read Polish cos I can’t shift the feeling that a lot of my criticisms of this series stem from translation issues. Not all, but certainly a sizeable chunk. Regardless, I’m gonna carry on reading these books to the bitter end; they’ve got a hold on me that I can’t quite shake. I enjoy them, even though they’re a bit shit, and I’m quite happy with that 😀

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