Thursday, December 27, 2012

Review: Zoo City by Lauren Beukes

Lately it seems I’ve been on a bit of an urban fantasy kick. I’ve read some pretty standard contemporary urban fantasy that simply appeals to me as low-level entertainment, I’ve read some high-end urban fantasy that invokes an old-school feel with a fair bit of the mythic and historical thrown in, and I’ve read some pretty awful urban fantasy, regardless of how you choose to label it. But none was something that felt ‘new’ to me. And while being something ‘new’ is not always a great thing and not always something to strive for, when it’s done right, it stands out. Zoo City by Lauren Beukes (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) does that – it stands out.
In Buekes’ re-imagined modern world, there is a plague, colloquially known as the zoo plague. Basically, if you kill someone, you end up with a familiar animal attached to you through some unknown dark magic. The familiar grants you a magical ability, but it also must accompany you at all times, any pain the familiar feels, you feel, and if it dies…well, let’s just say death is the kindest part of what happens to you.
Zinzi December is a ‘zoo’ living in the Zoo City ghetto of Johannesburg, South Africa. Her animal is a sloth and her magic is the ability to find lost things. She’s a recovering drug addict working to pay off her drug-fueled debt and she makes ends meet by finding lost things and sending African spam emails. You know what happens next – a case comes along that she doesn’t want, but the pay it too good to pass up. The mystery is to find a lost person, something she tries not to do. She ends up over her head as she travels through the music/club scene of Johannesburg and things dive into the occult.
The brilliance of Zoo City is in the setting and what Beukes does with it. Africa is typically underrepresented in SFF, especially urban fantasy, so that alone makes it a breath of fresh air. But the atmosphere Beukes captures makes it great – we see the suffering of an African ghetto, but its hope and family life too. We get a hint of the truly terrible past of refuges. We see behind that spam email and see the person forced into writing it, and the pimp doing the forcing. We see the cost that is inflicted on the person who takes the life of another – some are the thugs we all envision, some regret their past, some are simply lost and scared. Beukes subtly opens our eyes to a world that most never see – intentionally and unintentionally.
Now, don’t get worried that Zoo City is some heavy-handed social commentary. It’s not, or it’s not just that and I certainly wouldn’t use the term heavy-handed. At its core is a standard hard-boiled missing person case, with a far from standard ‘private eye’ doing the digging. It’s an introduction to Johannesburg and life in South Africa, it has a truly unique magical ‘plague’ and it is populated by complex characters.
The book is relatively short and moves along at a generally fast pace, though I had trouble with some of the uneven pacing towards the middle. These pacing issues, in combination with the a dive deep into a rather confusing occult plot kept me from being as fully engaged in the book as I expected to be, which I find unfortunate.
Zoo City was a book that I had high expectations for, and for whatever reason those expectations weren’t entirely met. As I mentioned above, some of it is due to the pacing and some due to the direction it takes toward the end, but from the start there was something holding me back. It’s a good book, and in retrospect, a very good book that I find deserving of accolades it’s been receiving. It’s great to see something like this come along and be appreciated. So, maybe my expectations were just too high, or maybe there is some other level that it just didn’t quite meet, but for me I can’t say that I enjoyed the book much beyond the average. I feel like I should have enjoyed it more, especially in retrospect, but that doesn’t change how I feel. So, I do think that Zoo City is a great book and I think that it’s a brilliant addition to an often stale urban fantasy. But while I can see and appreciate what Beukes does with it, it didn’t entirely work for me, though I can’t put my finger on exactly why. But, I’ll still happily recommend it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Review: Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht

If asked I wouldn’t consider myself a big fan of urban fantasy. Sure, there are plenty of urban fantasy books that I like, and the last 5 books I’ve read could be considered urban fantasy, but generally speaking I’m not a huge fan of urban fantasy as it’s generally defined at this time. However, I tend to love ‘old-school’ urban fantasy – the stuff Emma Bull, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint and others. As often as not, you’ll hear that sort of urban fantasy called mythic fiction or something similar.
Of Blood and Honey by Stina Leicht (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) is urban fantasy in the style of old-school urban fantasy that leans toward mythic fiction. It’s also has a strong historic feel to it being set in the early 1970s Northern Ireland. Unlike much of the urban fantasy of today, Of Blood and Honey is not some mixture of up-beat, gritty, humorous ass-kicking protagonist discovering dark supernatural powers with cardboard characters. Of Blood and Honey is a deep, moody, truly dark, melancholy, tragic tale. Characters are constructed with depth, realistically flawed and realistically heroic. There is pain and despair with fleeting hope. This is not a book to lift up, entertain, or escape – at least in the most common thought of context. It is the story of humanity, the cruelty of humanity, love in the face of adversity, the horrors of war and oppressive government and resiliency when most of us would have rolled over and died.
Of Blood and Honey takes place at the height of the Troubles in Northern Ireland during the early 1970s. Liam is a young man who gets caught up in things beyond his control and ends up in the IRA. He’s also the son of shape-shifting fey right out of Irish myth, though he doesn’t know it. Throughout the book he’s a son, husband, prisoner, wheel man for the IRA, and drug addict. 
Of Blood and Honey is an unusually strong debut. The prose simply excels – at times it’s poetic, at times it captures a feel consistent with contemporary urban fantasy, and it always maintains the tone of Northern Ireland. The time isn’t happy, some truly horrific things happen to Liam and any decent tale of Irish fey must invoke melancholy and tragedy. Throughout Leicht seamlessly weaves the supernatural threads of her tale into the real world of Northern Ireland. 
Liam is the perfect character for Leicht’s story. He’s strong – but not strong in the ‘I kick your ass while making witty remarks’ of most urban fantasy. Perhaps strong is not the correct word – resilient fits better. Liam is that typical older teen/young adult looking to step out and find his place in the world – only he has no clue. He has a girlfriend that he thinks he loves, he has a loving mother, but an abusive stepfather. He longs to know who he is, but with his ongoing confusion and frustration comes anger. And there isn’t much that a young Irish Catholic man could do in 1970s Londonderry. He gets caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, he spends time in prison, while unknown to him supernatural forces are making his life harder and the Catholic Church is watching. Betrayal hits him from the closest quarters and everything he thinks he knows is turned inside out. As Liam struggles, it’s the strong arm of government that turns someone with no political aspirations towards the IRA.
It’s really a fascinating thing to watch Liam evolve through this book. We literally see him grow up – of course it’s aging through tragedy. At the end I can’t say Liam is left with hope, but it is at least acceptance of a sort.
This is a book set in violent, political time that many still alive experienced first-hand. This book focuses on one side of the story – that of repressed Irish Catholics in Northern Ireland. The IRA is shown in a somewhat positive light and in a basic sense, the Loyalists and British Government are bad guys. The horror of the times is well expressed. The violence and loss on both sides is shown. But, this is one side of the issue. Inevitably those who experienced the other side will have issues with this. But, on the whole this book does not glorify any position and shows the horrific, unjust nature of the times, regardless of positions.
Of Blood and Honey is powerfully good book – easily one of the best I’ve read in the past several years. It strikes the right balance as a work of urban fantasy, (recent) historical fiction and mythic fiction as it invokes an ‘old-school’ feel while holding on to a contemporary relativity. Liecht shows the horrors of humanity alongside its resiliency in way that we can all relate to in one way or another. The sequel to Of Blood and Honey  and next Book of the Fey and the Fallen is available and from what I’ve heard, just as good – And Blue Skies from Pain (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon).

A Few Odds and Ends of Christmas Cheer

So, my last post was back in November and at that time I was predicting a review in about a week. Well, that obviously didn’t happen. There are reasons of course, there are always reasons. I could blame it on the near constant sickness in the house for several weeks and my total lack of sleep during that time. I could also blame it on crazy work scheduled before the holidays begin. As well as the onslaught of our usual December visitors. And each is certainly true. Though the most true reason is that I received my copy of A Memory of Light by Robert Jordan and Brandon Sanderson (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) and it consumed me during my sickness-weakened state. I still managed to read all 900+ pages of it in a week, but it took a lot out of me doing so. I’ve been waiting for this book since I first picked up The Eye of the World (Indiebound, Book Depository, Amazon) back in 1994 and I must say that it ended well and appropriately. I’m still digesting that and I have numerous posts that I’ll write about A Memory of Light and The Wheel of Time, but not until January 8 and later.
Anyway, here are a few odds and ends to show that I’m still alive.
  • Amazing Stories is getting a reboot and is going live soon. There will be a bunch of different contributors, ranging from well-known authors to bloggers who never seen to get much attention (I’m referring to myself, though my involvement won’t be huge – just an occasional post). The press release is below.
The latest round of books received:
Books Received: November 26 - December 23, 2012
I should probably figure out a way to list books I get digitally since I’m getting quite a few that way these days. But don’t expect it soon.
Amazing Stories Press Release:
Amazing Stories, the world's first science fiction magazine, opens for Beta Testing of Phase 1 on Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013.
Fifty+ Writers Sign On to provide genre-related content! 
Experimenter Publishing Company
Hillsboro, NH
December 20, 2012
On Wednesday, January 2nd, 2013, I will be joined by more than 50 other writers from around the blogosphere to help launch the Beta Test of Phase 1 of the return of Amazing Stories.
Amazing Stories was the world's first science fiction magazine.  Published by Hugo Gernsback, the Father of Science Fiction, the magazine created the genre's first home and was instrumental in helping to establish science fiction fandom the fandom from which all other fandoms have evolved.
The magazine itself ceased publication in 2005; in 2008 the new publisher, Steve Davidson, discovered that the trademarks had lapsed and applied for them.  The marks were finally granted in 2011.
Phase 1 introduces the social networking aspects of the site and the Blog Team, more than 50 authors, artists, collectors, editors, pod casters, designers and bloggers who will address 14 different subjects on a regular basis SF, Fantasy & Horror literature, anime, gaming, film, television, the visual arts, audio works, the pulps, comics, fandom, science and publishing. 
Those wishing to participate in the Beta Test should request an invite by emailing the publisher, Steve Davidson.
Have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!


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