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Director Osgood Perkins’ The Blackcoat’s Daughter was one of my favorite horror movies of the past couple years: an extremely quiet, extremely tense little maybe-supernatural horror movie with an almost all-female cast. Thematically and artistically it seemed to end up standing in the shadow of The Witch (far and away the horror movie of the last, oh, five years at least, for me): I watched them within a month or so of each other, and Blackcoat immediately appealed to me as being the The Witch‘s little sister. They share the theme of female alienation being answered by the supernatural, and they share, shall we say, manifestations. But Blackcoat is smaller, sparer, and in a way, weirder and more personal-feeling, even if it does employ a few more conventional horror tropes. (I think it’s difficult for The Witch to feel as immediately personal – despite the fact that it’s a deeply humane narrative – due to the distancing effect of its historical setting.)

Lo, did I lose my shit when the existence of Perkins’ I Am the Pretty Thing that Lives in the House, a Netflix original movie, was brought to my attention. (Thank you, S.) First of all, THAT TITLE. Secondly, its trailer suggested, again, an extremely quiet, slow, weird film with a predominantly female cast. Yes.

The outlines of the plot are as follows: a present-day hospice nurse, Lily, arrives at the beautiful, historic Massachusetts house of an elderly horror novelist, Iris Blum. Prim, nervous Lily is lonely and scares easily; Iris has dementia and only addresses Lily as “Polly,” when she is responsive. From day one, Lily is troubled by small disturbances: knocking sounds, disarranged objects. As her months with Iris pass, it’s eventually suggested that one of Iris’ novels, The Woman in the Walls, was narrated to her personally – by the ghost of Polly, the 19th-century bride for whom the house was constructed, and who disappeared on her wedding day.

All of these conventional Gothic elements are conveyed, stylistically and structurally, in ways that push hard against conventionality, and are used in the service of exploring a rich interweaving of themes: isolation, time as nonlinear, the inevitability of death, and communal experience of female trauma.

The movie has a looping, drifting, intensely hushed aesthetic; elliptical is an easy word for it. Lily narrates from the beginning, for example, with unsettling authority, that “I am twenty-eight years old; I will never be twenty-nine.” In other words, this is a ghost story within a ghost story, the story of a second death nested within a first.

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 7.13.2014
Book from: Library

Mira Grant’s Parasite is one of the 2014 Hugo novel nominees, and is a competent but bland thriller set in a near-future where, in answer to the hygiene hypothesis, nearly everyone is implanted with a genetically engineered tapeworm. The implants confer systemic health benefits and exude all necessary medications – including, in a nice detail, birth control for women who can’t obtain it in typical form thanks to state regulations. Naturally, things don’t go as expected: the tapeworms start taking over, triggering the parasite-mediated equivalent of a zombie outbreak. The protagonist at the center of all of this is Sally Mitchell, a young woman who suffered total amnesia following her implant-enabled recovery from a near-fatal car accident. The emergence of the “sleepwalking” tapeworm-zombies, their strange awareness of her in particular, and the discovery of suppressed information about the true nature of the tapeworm, all force her to begin questioning whether her new personality might be more a product of the implant she received, than of the human self she used to be.

All of this happens in a surprisingly dull fashion. The characters, the speculative elements, the social commentary, were all just barely well-defined enough to keep me reading; even the action sequences felt rote and, figuratively, bloodless. I started skimming around the 200-page mark.

What I got from this novel is that 1) parasites are cool and 2) scientific hubris is bad. I’m a microbiologist, so 1) is a gimme, and 2) is… well. The boilerplate zombification scenario seems like a disappointing use of the timely and plausible-enough health-manipulation premise. I haven’t read it yet, but from what I’ve heard, Nick Mamatas’ 2011 novel Sensation sounds like it could be a more sophisticated take on the intersection of parasitism and human agency and cognition, though without the medical angle.

With respect to the science, Parasite starts out vague enough to be plausible, but this goes pear-shaped around the middle of the novel, where talking-head exposition proliferates. Genetic engineering is discussed in a mystifyingly pre-Mendelian way, where genomes, rather than being modular structures with rather well-defined architecture, are fuzzy entities that must be “blended” properly lest they become “unstable,” like… radioactive smoothies??

It was frustrating to me that Grant obviously relishes the wiliness and tenacity of parasites, but doesn’t penetrate beyond a superficial and often confused understanding of biology. I’m not saying that a truly deep understanding is necessary – sf just has to sound right enough – but the representation of science in Parasite is both simplistic and inaccurate enough to undermine plausibility in really basic and distracting ways. For example, Grant’s scientists appear oblivious to the existence of high-school-biology-level vocabulary distinguishing different kinds of symbiotes, instead repeatedly referring to “bad” and “good” [engineered] parasites. Parasites are by definition bad, while commensal organisms are neutral or beneficial to their hosts, a distinction one would expect marketing-minded scientists to be eager to publicly reinforce.

I realize that I’m a tough audience for this novel, but these are all things I would have been willing to overlook had the novel had enough interesting character-based, sociological, or other elements working for it, which was not the case. All in all, I might recommend Parasite to readers who are strongly interested in zombie-style stories with unconventional underpinnings, with the caveat that even simply as a thriller it’s not terribly exciting.

Go to:
Mira Grant: bio and works reviewed
Emera’s 2014 Hugo short story ballot

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 5.10.2013

Digging through my enormous backlog of short story links –

“Troublesolving,” by Tim Pratt (2009): Read the story at Subterranean Online. 

and

“Little Gods,” by Tim Pratt (2002): Read the story at Strange Horizons.

Tim Pratt writes very likable prose; the protagonists in both of these stories narrate with easy, musing movement of thought. “Troublesolving” is a light thriller about a divorcé who encounters a mysterious woman who promises to “fix broken things” for him, just as his recent spate of troubles, from lapsed insurance to a thoroughly vandalized apartment, begins to go really batty. The story doesn’t give the impression of straining itself to be either amusing or startling, and so succeeds at both very well. Its amiably glum protagonist moves through a few science-fictional twists that are fun in an expected kind of way – it’s the incidental observations about ergonomic chairs and pink handguns that really sell the humor, the characters, and their puzzling circumstances.

The Nebula-nominated “Little Gods,” a meditation on grief, ran twee for my tastes, but Pratt’s quietness of tone moderates the sugar to a certain extent, and there are a number of nicely concretely imagined moments:

“I hurl the chunk of rock at the woman on the ceiling. It hits her in the stomach and bounces off, landing on the coffee table with a crack. She squawks like a blackbird. Her skirts draw in quickly like windowshades snapping shut, and then she’s gone, nothing on my ceiling but abandoned spiderwebs.”

Go to:

Tim Pratt: bio and works reviewed

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 1.26.2013
Read online at Subterranean Press, Winter 2010 edition.

“The Bohemian Astrobleme” (2010) is another droll, diverting spy romp in Baker’s Company universe, the second to feature the spyin’, whorin’, but mostly shruggin’-at-the-foibles-of-men Women of Nell Gwynne’s. (After Baker’s death in 2010, her sister, Kathleen Bartholomew, finished her final novel of the Women, On Land and at Sea, which was just released this past December.)

This time, Lady Beatrice is dispatched to serve in a transcontinental operation regarding the acquisition of the titular mineral, of great scientific interest to the Company’s efforts, which are described as follows:

“The Society’s goal was the improvement of the human condition through the secret use of technologia, until such time as humanity became advanced enough to be made aware of its benefits. It was generally agreed that some sort of world domination would be necessary before that day arrived, but at the present time the Society was content merely to gather power and pull strings attached to certain government officials.”

The story is elegant, economical, briskly paced, and, as above, full of deadpan humor perfect in its quiet delivery. My only disappointment is that the depiction of Lady Beatrice doesn’t progress beyond that initially introduced in “The Women…” (cool, self-contained, effortlessly competent), since she’s a character begging for further development. A static sketch of a hypercompetent cipher is rarely fulfilling, no matter how entertaining. Inevitably, I’ll have to make it my business to pick up the novel.

Go to:
Kage Baker: bio and works reviewed
The Women of Nell Gwynne’s, by Kage Baker (2009): review by Emera
Read “The Bohemian Astrobleme” online

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 4.1.12
Book from: Personal collection, via Subterranean Press.

(N.B. The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is out of print, and has since been republished as Scarlet Spy.)

“In any other neighborhood, perhaps, there would have been some uncouth speculation about the inordinate number of females under one roof. The lady of the house by Birdcage Walk, however, retained her reputation for spotless respectability, largely because no gentlemen visitors were ever seen arriving or departing the premise, at any hour of the day or night whatsoever.

Gentlemen were unseen because they never went to the house near Birdcage Walk. They went instead to a certain private establishment known as Nell Gwynne’s …

Now and again, in the hushed and circumspect atmosphere of the Athenaeum (or the Carlton Club, or the Traveller’s Club) someone might imbibe enough port to wonder aloud just what it took to get an invitation from Mrs. Corvey.

The answer, though quite simple, was never guessed.

One had to know secrets.”

The Women of Nell Gwynne’s is a breezily entertaining steampunk spy-thriller novella, serving up fast-paced intrigue, witticisms, and gadgetry, with the occasional amusing period detour into e.g. the niceties of Victorian cake decoration. There’s a modicum of social commentary, too, on the precarity of being a woman in a man’s world: the Women of Nell Gwynne’s are societal cast-offs, disgraced former gentlewomen (and one former workhouse girl) offered recourse as courtesan-intelligencers. Their sponsors are the Gentlemen’s Speculative Society, a mysterious organization of spies and inventors that eventually gives rise to the Company, the subject of numerous of Baker’s other works (which I’ve never read). Here, members of Nell Gwynne’s are dispatched to investigate the disappearance of a Society member on assignment at the country manor of a secretive aristocrat, who appears to have developed a taste of his own for invention.

Most of the Women are charming sketches, like the three cheeky Misses Devere and the cross-dressing Herbert/ina, who has “the appearance of a cupid-faced lad fresh from a public school whereat a number of outré vices were practiced.” (Predictably, I was enamored with the latter.) The only psychological interior to which we have access is that of Lady Beatrice, the Scarlet Spy. Lady Beatrice is a survivor of abduction and rape during the disastrous first Anglo-Afghan War, who returns to England only to be promptly disowned by her family. Her relationship with herself – her horrific past, her mechanically unstoppable will to survive, the wary distance she keeps from herself as a physical being – is the story’s most compelling element. While The Women of Nell Gwynne’s didn’t have me hankering to dive into the entirety of the Company series, I am curious to read the further Nell Gwynne’s novelette The Bohemian Astrobleme, to see whether Lady Beatrice is further developed as a character.

Edit to add: Reading about the life of the actual Nell Gwynne, a 17th-century brothel girl turned celebrated comedienne turned royal mistress, is a must. Amazing woman.

Go to:

Kage Baker: bio and works reviewed
Subterranean Press: Kage Baker’s Scarlet Spy

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Reviewer: Emera
Date read: 2011.10.16
Book from: Personal collection

Cassel Sharpe is the only non-magical member of a family of curse workers, in a world where magic is illegal and hence “worker” families constitute the magical equivalent of the mafia. Despite his disappointing failure to inherit curse-working powers, Cassel somehow managed to murder his childhood friend and love, Lila – though why he can’t remember. Add in life-threatening bouts of nightmares and sleepwalking, a dysfunctional crime family, and the beginnings of an elaborate conspiracy, and Cassel’s attempts at passing himself off as a normal kid seem like they might be over for good.

I read White Cat in one sitting after accidentally meeting Holly Black at a book festival and picking up a copy from her. This is addictive stuff: magical con artists and Russian mobsters; family melodrama; a hard-driving, twisty-turny plot; a mouthy, self-deprecating protagonist with likably grounded sidekicks. I must give a particular hurrah for there being a male Asian-American character: Sam Yu, Cassel’s roommate, a theater geek whose vehicle of choice is a converted hearse.

Black’s prose is a lot sharper and cleaner than I remember it being in her Modern Faerie trilogy, which I sorta-loved for its heroines, but mostly remember as a swill of angst. Cassel angsts plenty, too (I admit to skimming some of the whinier passages), but there are moments – particularly the ending – where his emotional experience deepens into real, wrenching anguish. That, and plenty of sharp detail – the world-building, Cassel’s slickly laid out cons, characters who convince you of their reality – kept me invested. I can’t wait to see where the series goes from here. Let this stand as a reminder to myself to pick up Red Glove whenever I find the chance.

Go to:
Holly Black: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 9.2.11
Book from: Borrowed from my cousin
Reviewer: Emera

“The name’s Bond. Shaman Bond. Actually, that’s just my cover. I’m Eddie Drood. But when your job includes a license to kick supernatural arse on a regular basis, you find your laughs where you can. For centuries, my family has been the secret guardian of humanity, all that stands between all of you and all of the really nasty things that go bump in the night. As a Drood field agent I wore the golden torc, I killed monsters, and I protected the world. I loved my job. Right up to the point when my own family declared me rogue for no reason, and I was forced to go on the run. Now the only people who can help me prove my innocence are the people I used to consider my enemies.

I’m Shaman Bond, very secret agent. And I’m going to prove to everyone that no one does it better than me.”

More junk food, sorry. Harry Dresden in London, basically, only not half as zippy or funny (and I’m pretty easily amused when it comes to dork humor). Most of Green’s one-liners sink without a trace, and the book feels brutally repetitive only a few chapters in. The main character solves most conflicts by punching buildings or people (while wearing his magical golden armor of invulnerability and superstrength) or activating one of an array of ridiculously overpowered gadgets. (Look, we get that James Bond had absurd gadgetry, but his gadgetry stayed fun and quirky because it was generally small in size and effect, and single-use-only. Exploding pen =/= watch that can be repeatedly used to turn back time.)

Green thrusts settings and concepts and characters under our noses and then yanks them back again so fast that we hardly have the time to get a sense of  their flavor. I enjoy the Dresden Files in large part because I love and want to explore the Dresdenverse; there’s no Droodverse, just a series of sets being frantically swapped out. And to add to the list of things that get old, fast: Drood’s backup/love interest, the wild witch Molly Metcalf, seems to be capable of expressing disappointment only by pouting, and delight by clapping her hands and squealing. Really?

Still, I enjoyed the introductions to a few lesser-known bits of British-Isles folklore – a throwaway reference had me looking up Joan the Wad, Cornish pixie queen, for example – and a few of Green’s own creations, like Girl Flower, a Welsh elemental made of “rose petals and owls’ claws,” and the Blue Fairy, a dissolute half-elf with the ability to go fishing in other dimensions. And a few moments of the climax felt actually impressive, rather than just loud and boom-y, so I closed the book feeling halfway entertained.

Go to:
Simon R. Green: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 12.21.10
Book from: Public library
Reviewer: Emera

The cover-flap copy for this book is so absurdly, inveiglingly charming that I just have to post the whole thing:

What real reader does not yearn, somewhere in the recesses of his or her heart, for a really literate, first-class thriller – one that chills the body with foreboding of dark deeds to come, but warms the soul with perceptions and language at once astute and vivid? In other words, a ghost story by Jane Austen.

Austen we cannot, alas, give you, but Susan Hill’s remarkable Woman In Black comes as close as the late twentieth century is likely to provide. Set on the obligatory English moor, on an isolated causeway, the story has as its hero one Arthur Kipps, an up-and-coming young solicitor who has come north to attend the funeral and settle the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow of Eel Marsh House. The routine formalities he anticipates give way to a tumble of events and secrets more sinister and terrifying than any nightmare: the rocking chair in the nursery of the deserted Eel Marsh House, the eerie sound of pony and trap, a child’s scream in the fog, and, most dreadfully, and for Kipps most tragically, the woman in black.

So, yep, a good old English Gothic. Hill provides a smoothly paced, carefully detailed ghost story, meditative in tone and full of lovely, eerie descriptions of the silvery salt marshes and sudden “sea frets” (fogs) that surround the requisite abandoned mansion.

Unfortunately, I can’t think of much other praise for the book beyond words like “accomplished” and “polished.” Hill’s easy mastery of all the conventions of the genre – the meticulously built-up suspense, the confident young narrator whose rationality slowly buckles – has the effect of making it all feel rather tidy and expected, particularly since her prose feels about the same.  In the twisty-turny thrillery department – I guessed the overall shape of the plot about 20 pages in, and foresaw most of the twists after that well in advance.

All in all, a pleasantly chilly read for a winter night, with one or two lingeringly unsettling images, but nothing that really bit deep.

Go to:
Susan Hill: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: (incomplete) 10.17.10
Book from: Borrowed from Kakaner
Reviewer: Emera

Adapted from the back cover:

“Set in contemporary Moscow, where shapeshifters, vampires, and streets-sorcerers linger in the shadows, Night Watch is the first book in an epic saga chronicling the eternal war of the ‘Others,’ an ancient race of humans with supernatural powers who must swear allegiance to either the Dark or the Light. The agents of Light – the Night Watch – oversee nocturnal activity, while the agents of Dark keep watch over the day. For a thousand years both sides have maintained a precarious balance of power, but an ancient prophecy has decreed that a supreme Other will one day emerge, threatening to tip the scales. Now, that day has arrived. When a mid-level Night Watch agent named Anton stumbles upon a cursed young woman – an uninitiated Other with magnificent potential – both sides prepare for a battle that could lay waste to the entire city, possibly the world.”

I grabbed this off of Kakaner’s shelf at some point, having heard that the movie adaptations of the series were good, and being a bit of a sucker for urban-fantasy romps (as evidenced by my shameless obsession with the Dresden Files). I sampled two chapters before deciding to give the rest a miss. What I read seemed a bit silly and mostly predictable; I didn’t feel particularly intrigued by the characters or the world-building, especially given the obvious moral binary. Andrew Bromfield’s translation reads fluently, so I’m going to assume that any faults lie with the original text: namely, abuse of ellipses and exclamation points (“This was real power! With real perseverance!” “Damn!” “Faster!” “A female voice!”) and a general atmosphere of cheesy, humorless melodrama. Characters growl in anger, angst about unquenchable blood thirst, and so on.

Also, not the fault of the book itself, but still hilarious – a further excerpt from the back-cover summary: “With language that throbs like darkly humorous hard-rock lyrics about blood and power, freedom and responsibility…” – That is some quite specific throbbing.

Go to:
Sergei Lukyanenko: bio and works reviewed

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Date read: 8.2.10
Book from: Borrowed from a friend
Reviewer: Emera

MW - Tezuka Osamu

Apparently not a single unpixellated version of this image wants to let me find it.

Whyyyy did I read this all in (pretty much) one sitting. Whatever the opposite of feel-good is, MW falls into that category. The whole time I was reading, I got the impression of Tezuka Osamu crowing, “Suffer in an agony of dread while I, the creator of such lovable, family-friendly classics of Japanese animation and comics as Astro Boy and Kimba the White Lion, manipulate your feelings with this unrelentingly dark thriller about a serial killer and the priest bound to him by guilt and love! Bwa ha ha ha!” Thanks, Tezuka. By the time I hit the last 20 pages, I was so overwrought with fatalistic dread that I had to put the book down for a few hours, before returning to the equally depressing final scenes.

For an illuminating bit of background, Wikipedia provided me with the following context: “This manga series is notable because it can be seen as Tezuka’s response to the gekiga (“dramatic pictures”) artists who emerged in the 1960s and 70s and an attempt to beat them at their own game.The gekiga artists of this period created gritty, adult-oriented works that sharply contrasted the softer, Disney-influenced style that Tezuka was associated with, a style that was seen as being out-of-step with the times.” So I think I’m not entirely wrong in detecting a certain amount of authorial glee in the proceedings.

MW is also a response to the use of chemical weaponry during the Vietnam War. MW‘s resident sociopath, Yuki Michio, the charming, long-lashed scion of a renowned family of kabuki actors, is a sociopath because he was exposed as a child to a neurotoxic weapon – MW – leaked from an island containment facility owned by Nation X (i.e. America). Father Garai, Yuki’s confidante and extremely guilty lover, feels bound to protect Yuki’s identity from the authorities because he, as an erstwhile hoodlum, was holding a nine-year-old Yuki captive at the time. He and Yuki were the only survivors; Garai joined the Church some time thereafter in an attempt to escape both his horror at having witnessed the disaster, and his guilt at his relationship with Yuki. (Yes, do the math there. Tezuka reaches for pretty much every variety of shock value, and even by the standards of anime/manga,  most of it is awful.)

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