Sunday, June 29, 2014


I really enjoyed last year's Black Feathers, Joseph D'Lacey's first half of the saga of Gordon Black (what is it with Angry Robot Books and people named Black and blackbirds these days, by the way? It's impossible not to think of Gordon and Miriam Black as siblings of some twisted and horrible kind), but I gotta admit, this second half, The Book of the Crowman, was kind of a slog, you guys.

And that makes me really sad. Even as it suggests rather strongly (ok, more like shouts, for reasons I'll get to below) that in appreciating the subtlety, ambiguity and lack of preachiness in the first volume, I was appreciating Black Feathers all wrong. Either that or I was being set up in the first volume for the rhetorical bludgeoning I got in the second. I think I'd almost rather have been appreciating it all wrong.

For The Book of the Crowman takes all of the things I liked best about Black Feathers and throws them onto the compost heap. Gordon is now explicitly a hippie Christ figure (although yes, he kills a lot more people than Jeebus ever did) (well except all the ones that Jeebus has indirectly killed over the centuries) (but maybe not, 'cause dude kills a lot of people with his little lock knife). Megan becomes less of a Lemmiwinks but still manages to be boring. And the chilling villains of the first volume, Skelton and Pike, stop feeling quite so much like Neil Gaiman/BtVS villains (they totally reminded me of The Gentlemen in Black Feathers) and more like Satan and Saddam Hussein in South Park.

What kept me going was the writing itself, the one quality that truly does carry over from the prior volume. D'Lacey really lets himself rock out this time around, with great escape sequences, action scenes, whole set-piece battles (longbowmen versus tanks, y'all. S'all I'm saying), and also some more of those powerful, quietly emotional scenes that stay with you long after the last page of the book is read.

Ultimately, though, all of that beauty and excitement wound up not being enough when weighed against the feeling of being preached at. It's an open question for me whether it's people with whom one agrees (as is pretty much the case here) or people with whom one disagrees who are more annoying when they just won't shut up about their cause, but the experience of reading this book has added extra weight to the former notion. When you're drinking/talking with an earnest hippie friend who feels passionately about this cause -- nature versus industrialism, pastoralism versus exploitation, tribal egalitarianism versus macro-societal authoritarianism -- sooner or later you can get them to shut up and realize that they're wasting their breath and energy trying to convert the already converted. One cannot, at present, tell a novel to just shut up and enjoy the sunset though. So far. Ah, me.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Justin Robinson's GET BLANK

Justin Robinson's Fill in the Blank series has the makings of a classic except for one small but significant flaw: it is a bit too much a product of the moment, that moment being early 2014, during the grand epic swan song/swan dive of that remarkable but possibly not unforgettable TV series Mad Men*. Which is to say that I'm a bit concerned, regarding this second volume, Get Blank, that it's not going to stand up quite as well as it deserves to in the years to come, when that show and the other pop culture ephemera of this moment are distant memories. And make no mistake, these books deserve to stand up. They deserve to stand up a lot. And that's not any kind of double entendre. Or at least not much of one.

But you know, perhaps early readers of Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson had similar concerns, back in the day.

All questions of long-term survival of the book aside, Get Blank is a worthy successor to the book in which our conspiracy-juggling hero was introduced, 2012's thigh-slapping romp Mr. Blank. It has all of the qualities I enjoyed most in that first book, without feeling like the mixture same as before; Robinson importantly proves early on that "Bob" Blank is far from being a one-note character, even as again he goes to a familiar crime/noir plot well, that of the getting-too-old-for-this-ish, it's-somebody-else's-turn wannabe retiree who is sucked back into his old life by forces he can't control and complains about it entertainingly.

Robinson wisely narrows the focus, this time around, on his protagonist/narrator's amusing narrative voice, resisting the temptation to fill this second volume chock full of MOAR. MOAR CONSPIRACIES! MOAR VILLAINS! MOAR SURREALS! MOAR PUNTASTIC DIALOGUE! MOAR MOAR MOAR.

Instead, we rather a more restrained and thoughtful look at Blank's weird world through his grudgingly maturing eyes.** As Bernard Black (perhaps my only pop culture hero that doesn't get a sly mention or allusion in this novel) would say, he's a boytfriend now; he's got duties, responsibilities, lots of hand-holding and sighing... except unlike Bernard, Blank really is a boyfriend now, whether people believe him or not; the buxom bombshell who shared his adventures last novel, Mina the gorgeous plus-sized model, saw something special in him that no one else seems to (except for us, of course) and decided all he really needed to be a suitable partner was some decent clothes. It's sweet!

Alas, the damsel no sooner won is lost again, framed for murder in an obvious but effective ploy to draw the supposedly retired Blank back out into his former, laughably complex, orbits. As plot devices go, it's a bit ho hum, and it deprives us of a character that really enriched the prior novel, but really, how the hell else are a bunch of conspiracy nuts going to suck their favorite gopher back onto the sacrificial goat delivery circuit? I can't think of a better, can you?

Taking Mina's prior-novel place as sidekick/helpmeet-cum-source of bafflement is one Victor Charlie, a genuine Man in Black, complete with old-fashioned-looking car that can speed like a rocketship, but who is way more bizarre than anything Lowell Cunningham et al imagined for the comic book/film franchise of that name. VC is one weird amalgam of person and program, popping off stock phrases like "hubba hubba" at inappropriate times, taking instructions like "hang on a second" too literally, and generally both helping and hindering Blank's progress, often at the exact same moment. I wish he'd come into the story sooner, though. Ditto Elias. O, Elias, O VC. I would read the crap out of the adventures of Blank and Elias and VC, I really would. 23 Skiddo.

Did I laugh out loud on every other page like last time? No. But what I did do was begin to feel for Mr. Blank, to understand what a life like his might actually be like, and to root for his romance. And that's no mean feat when dealing with a cranky reader like me.

Bravo, Justin! Bravo, Blank!

*Remusly, lots of references to Mad Men here, and I'm not just talking about the main female character/quest object (yes, sadly, the magnificent Mina is more of an absence than a presence in this second Blank novel) being pretty much a role crafted expressly for Christina Hendricks in all her stacked and begirdled red-haired Marilyn Monroe sex-bomb glory.

**Lest this make the book sound too po-faced, though, let me assure you, there are still bits that are funny as hell. A running gag in which Blank keeps enlightening us on the seekrit conspiratorial messages hidden in a litany of pop songs Mina has loaded onto his iPod is lots of fun, for instance. And yes, one of them is by R.E.M. and yes it's probably the one you're thinking of.

Friday, June 6, 2014


K.W. Jeter is probably best known (at least in my circles) as the guy who invented steampunk, or at least the guy who named it. And his Infernal Devices is one of the earliest and, for my money, best examples of the sub-genre.

Others know him as an author of novelizations, franchise works and authorized sequels to famous works by other, better known authors. And that's fine.

But Jeter is his own man, and his own stand-alone work is brilliant. He may never completely emerge from his friend Philip K. Dick's shadow (Jeter has also achieved literary immortality by serving as the model for the character of Kevin, he of the dead cat fame, in Philip K. Dick's VALIS; that's how tight he and Dick and their friend Tim "David" Powers were, yo), but he still manages to shine brilliantly within it, uneclipsed.

It's books like Madlands that demonstrate this most brilliantly. Yes, it has strong Phildickian and, for that matter, Tim Powersful*, qualities, but this book has an angry, noir-ish edge to it his friends' works mostly lack, together with a wonderfully baroque, Grand Guignol sensibility that makes reading it a wickedly enjoyable pleasure.

Jeter's dystopian future Los Angeles is quite literally the product of a deranged imagination; it is a sort of projected construct of the City of Angels' mostly fanciful celluloid past onto a weird void that seems to be all that's left of the world after some unspecified disaster. Reality isn't what it used to be in the Madlands, a zone in which thrill-seekers can come and experience multiple versions of reality all at once, see things their ordinary human eyes can't, etc. etc.** Weirdly, though, nobody who takes a day trip into this zone seems ever to feel like leaving, which has profound consequences for their long-term survival in that the field or wavelength or whatever that lets them experience other realities also messes with people's very cells, very molecules, and destroys their ability to remain organized as human bodies. So everybody who's been there for a while develops multiple cancers as a precursor to eventually becoming a slurpy pile of goo with vestigial eyes that plead for passersby to end the misery with a gun or sledgehammer.

See? Baroque.

Presiding over all of this is a giant egomaniac known as Identrope, who is somehow immune to the effects of the Madlands field, probably because he is somehow the source or cause of it. He is a literal and figurative cult figure, the ultimate TV star-cum-religious leader, who offers a weird and limited but very real (or at least "real") form of immortality to his followers that is the only way for ordinary people to avoid dissolving into protoplasm. And he has lots of takers.

Overlaying all of this weirdness is a plot that will seem almost wearily familiar to anyone who's read a lot of fiction: a crime noir betrayal and doublecross story. Identrope isn't the only guy in the Madlands who has weird powers within it, you see, and he seems to have nursed some vipers at his breast. But that's a good thing.

A very good thing.

And this little bit of familiarity actually winds up feeling pretty welcome among all the weird. Noir is a great anchor for storytelling like this. And this level of weird, well, it needs some anchoring.

The book is an absolute pleasure. Don't miss it!

*Madlands would make a wonderful companion read to Powers' early and underrated Dinner at Deviant's Palace. Identrope and Reverend Jaybush would have a lot to talk about over drinks of worshipper's cerebrospinal fluids or somesuch.

**I imagine this as something like the effects of the machine H.P. Lovecraft's Crawford Tillinghast creates to allow himself to perceive alternate dimensions in "From Beyond" writ very, very large. And permanent. And with much worse side effects.