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Posts Tagged ‘speculative fiction’

Ever dreamed of hibernating through winter? In the reality-adjacent Wales of Jasper Fforde’s  wild and crazy new novel Early Riser (Viking Penguin, digital galley), winter is so horrible that the majority of the population literally hibernates in huge, high-rise Dormitoria. Many of them are under the influence of Morphenox, a trademarked drug that suppresses calorie-robbing dreams. Heaven forbid if your stored fat doesn’t last till spring; you could be one of those poor souls who Died in Sleep. By comparison, the risk that Morphonox could turn you into a cannibalistic nightwalker is so slight that most pony up the bucks for the drug or have a job that guarantees it. Which is why orphan Charlie Worthing enlists as a novice Winter Counsel, guarding the sleeping masses through SlumberDown from such perils as maurauding nightwalkers and the fearsome Winterfolk. Adventure awaits, as do subplots and satire aplenty, when Charlie goes searching for the source of a viral dream featuring a blue Buick and grasping hands.

Fforde, best-known for his fantastic Thursday Next series that began with The Eyre Affair, is as clever and inventive as ever with this stand-alone. He pushes the boundaries of absurdity at times, and the plot threatens to collapse under the weight of the world-building. But the wordplay is so much fun, as are the many deft and delightful details and pop culture references. Only Fforde — or maybe Monty Python — could envision a creature whose ominous presence is announced by the faint strains of Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. That’s entertainment.

Dystopia is disquieting in Karen Thompson Walker’s The Dreamers (Random House, digital galley), written in a lovely minor key. In her 2012 first novel The Age of Miracles, the end of the world as we know it was triggered by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation and narrated by a California sixth-grader. The story was elegiac and intimate as the ordinary rites of adolescence continued in the face of global catastrophe. “We kids were not as afraid as we should have been. We were too young to be scared, too immersed in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

The focus is wider, the voice omniscient in The Dreamers as people in a small California town fall victim to a mysterious sleeping sickness. The first victims are college students who fall asleep after a night of partying and slide into comas. But then scattered townspeople and the health workers caring for them sicken, too, and the viral epidemic spreads so that within just a matter of weeks the area is quarantined. Walker moves in out of the dreams and lives of the infected and the still-well. Especially poignant are the two young girls left alone when their prepper father falls ill. Their basement is full of canned goods, and they try to maintain a semblance of normalcy, taking in stray pets. Next door is a young couple who monitor their newborn for symptoms after she is inadvertently exposed. Across town, two students come together as volunteers nursing dreamers in the college library.

Walker’s tone is measured, almost hypnotic throughout. The result is a story as mysterious as a dream, as disturbing as a nightmare.

 

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realmagicIf you want to be a fairy princess when you grow up, or are considering clairvoyancy as a career path, two new books likely will change your mind. They may, however, encourage you to try your hand at fantasy writing. Warning: the field is quite crowded, and these two first-timers set the bar quite high.
The cover and title of Emily Croy Barker’s The Thinking Woman’s Guide to Real Magic (Viking/Pamela Dorman, digital galley) made me think it was going to be some light paranormal fantasy, but happily I was proved wrong. Barker’s debut is a well-thought-out epic referencing literature and fairy tales and reminds me of works by Deborah Harkness and Robin McKinley.
Grad student Nora Fischer, disappointed in love and academia, goes AWOL from a friend’s mountain wedding and wanders through a portal into an alternate world, although it takes her awhile to realize the Gatsbyesque land with all the beautiful people is an illusion created by the Faitoren, a fairy people.
Thoroughly bewitched by dashing Prince Raclan and his manipulative mother Ilissa, Nora’s finally rescued by powerful, enigmatic magician Arundiel and must adapt to a strange medieval world in which neither educated women nor good hygiene are particularly valued. Stuck in Arundiel’s isolated castle, Nora eventually convinces her grim host to teach her magic, hoping that this skill will get her farther in the divided kingdom, or at least closer to home, than peeling potatoes and milking cows. But she’s still a mere beginner when war breaks out, and Nora’s well-meaning actions could cost lives.
After a sluggish beginning, Barker imagines a convincing world that’s familiar from fairy tales but different enough to surprise. There be dragons. And ice demons. It’s 500-plus plus pages of magic and intrigue, with a hint of romance and an ending sufficient to the day. I’m hoping for a sequel.
boneseasonWe already know there’s going to be a sequel to Samantha Shannon’s enthralling The Bone Season (Bloomsbury USA, digital galley), which she began writing as a 19-year-old student at Oxford (all of two years ago) and is the first in a projected seven-book series. That may sound daunting, but Shannon’s world-building is phenomenal and seductive.
In 2059, Great Britain is ruled by the totalitarian corporate body known as Scion, which has it all over Big Brother in the enforcement department, hunting down clairvoyants of all stripes. Paige, a rare dreamwalker, has allied herself with the criminal underworld and when she is captured by Scion after killing an underguard, she expects torture and execution in the Tower. Instead, she awakens after five days of hellish hallucinations in the Lost City of Oxford and discovers that she is a prisoner of the Rephaim, otherworldly humanoids who need Scion’s voyants to fight off flesh-eating creatures who rampage through the aether. The stern blood-consort Warden Arcturus becomes Paige’s “keeper,” but her existence is precarious at best as she tries to contact old friends in London and make new ones among her fellow prisoners.
Intricate, provocative and richly imagined, The Bone Season is meaty dystopian fiction. More, please.

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atkinsonMy friend Dean recently banned the use of  the old Yogi Berra saying “deja vu all over again” because it is  misused and overused, cliched and redundant.  But when I first started reading Kate Atkinson’s kaleidoscopic new novel Life After Life (Little, Brown, digital galley via NetGalley), I kept thinking of it, especially when Ursula Todd’s mother says of her daughter “she has a kind of deja vu all the time.”

Not surprising when Ursula lives and dies multiple times over the course of the novel, which is so much more than a narrative parlor trick, a literary Groundhog Day, or an episode of Dr. Who. (Come to think of it, though, Ursula appears to be a kindred spirit of the Doctor’s enigmatic new companion, Clara Oswin Oswald, who has died at least twice already that viewers know of.)

Ursula first is stillborn on a snowy February night in 1910. A few pages later, the umbilical cord is cut from her neck and she breathes. But her seemingly idyllic Yorkshire childhood is filled with perils: crashing waves, slippery roofs, Spanish flu. “Darkness falls” is Atkinson’s signature cue for Ursula’s demise so another scenario can be played out, events slightly altered and leading down different roads. Not to spoil things, but in one life Ursula marries an abusive schoolteacher; in another, she marries a German lawyer and has a child. In that life, she also knows Eva Braun and is caught in the bombing of Berlin. But in other lives, she both dies and survives the London Blitz several times as “darkness falls” over England and Europe. Eventually, the book circles back to its 1930 prologue when an English woman points a gun at Hitler because, of course, if you could go back and “get things right,” you’d want to kill him, too.

The Blitz, as Atkinson says, is the “dark beating heart” of the novel and her set pieces are accordingly horrific as to the damage inflicted on people, animals, birds and buildings. Again and again, the story returns to a subterranean cellar of a house on Argyll Road, where residents shelter during air raids. “It was a maze, a moldy, unpleasant space, full of spiders and beetles, and felt horribly crowded if they were all in there, especially once the Millers’ dog, a shapeless rug of fur called Billy, was dragged reluctantly down the stairs to join them.”

Atkinson surrounds Ursula with a fully realized family: banker father Hugh and faceted mother Sylvie,  obnoxious brother Maurice, bohemian aunt Izzie, beloved brother Teddy, reliable sister Pamela. Their fates, too, change, depending on which of Ursula’s lives you’re following at the time. Then there’s the memorable supporting cast, including heroic air raid warden Miss Woolf, married naval officer Crighton, childhood friends Millie,  Nancy, Fred, Ben. Like some details — a piece of costume jewelry, or a small white dog, or gold cigarette case — they keep showing up in different plotlines. 

You might wonder as to the point of all these pluralities, other than Atkinson stretching the storytelling envelope. Those familiar with her Jackson Brodie crime novels such as Case History or the semi-time-travel tale Human Croquet know she’s already a deft and inventive writer. I’ll read anything she has written. But Life After Life, both playful and poignant, strikes me as her best book yet, “bearing witness” to lives gone before, yet reimagining life’s possibilities. I can’t wait to read it again.

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Wildfires out West and floods in Florida. Just more weird weather, or — dum, dum, dum — the end of the world as we know it? In this summer’s most buzzed-about book, The Age of Miracles, first-time novelist Karen Thompson Walker posits an end-days scenario triggered by the slowing of the Earth’s rotation.

“We didn’t notice right away. We couldn’t feel it,” begins narrator Julia, a Southern California sixth-grader. She recalls that they were distracted by weather and war, worrying about the wrong things: “the hole in the ozone layer, the melting of the ice caps, West Nile and swine flu and killer bees. But I guess it never is what you worry over that comes to pass in the end. The real catastrophes are always different  — unimagined, unprepared for, unknown.”

As far as global castastrophes goes, “the slowing” is a pretty good one. Birds plummet from the sky as gravity shifts. Whales beach themselves. Long days stretch into  white nights. Some plants begin to die, some people sicken, including Julia’s mother, who like many others, begins hoarding canned goods and candles. A period of panic sets in before the government decides society should continue 24/7, even if it means school begins in the middle of the night. The “real-timers” rebel, preferring to stick to circadian rhythms, although they are ostracized by their neighbors. A good many pick up and light out for the territory to establish their own communities.

Apocalypse nigh, of course, is a speculative fiction staple, and dystopia the favorite setting of current YA novels. But The Age of Miracles lacks the vitality of many of those books, such as Veronica Roth’s Divergent. Walker’s tone is elegiac, her writing elegant as Julia details both the ordinary travails of early adolescence — best friends, first loves, sleepovers, soccer games — and such extraordinary events as raging solar storms and rips in the magnetic field. It’s this counterpoint that makes for an intimate, involving narrative.

“We kids were not as afraid as we should have been,” Julia confesses. “We were too young to be scared, too immersed  in our own small worlds, too convinced of our own permanence.”

How much you enjoy The Age of Miracles will depend on how much you care about Julia’s small world of family and friends — her weary mother, her secretive father, her feisty grandfather, her classmate Seth — and all the little dramas of life going on.

Open Book: I read a digital galley via NetGalley of Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random House). Soon it will disappear from my Nook, but not from my memory.

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