Sunday, September 19, 2021

Book Review: Hammers on Bone

book cover for Hammer on BoneJohn Persons is a private investigator with a distasteful job from an unlikely client. He's been hired by a ten-year-old to kill the kid's stepdad, McKinsey. The man in question is abusive, abrasive, and abominable.

He's also a monster, which makes Persons the perfect thing to hunt him. Over the course of his ancient, arcane existence, he's hunted gods and demons, and broken them in his teeth.

The story opens with the kid in Persons' office, looking to hire him for the job. Persons' dialogue is all 1930s-40s gumshoe, including using terms for women that would be considered sexist today ("dame", "skirt", "broads", etc.), but excusable for the time period. Khaw follows it up by creating a juicy noir atmosphere.
The cold feels good, real good, a switchblade chill cutting deep into the cancer of a thousand years' nap.
But as chapter one starts winding down, I realize that the story isn't taking place back then, it's contemporary.
These days, it's all bae and fleek, bootylicious selfies and cultural appropriation done on brand.
It was jarring, and no explanation was given. It would've made more sense to either place the story back several decades or update Persons' slang to something more fitting of the times.

I loved the way Khaw made use of scents to describe how Parsons interacted with his environment.
There's a pervasive smell in the hallway. Not quite a stench, but something unpleasant. Like the remnants of a molly party, or old sex left to crust on skin.
Khaw then uses that scent imagery to let the Lovecraft vibe seep in.
The stink grows strong: less human, more maritime malfeasance. A reek of salt and hard use, of drowned things rotten with new life.
Until it's staring at us, straight in the face.
In his agitation, his skin splits, spreads to frame a moist blue eye, cataracted and lethargically sullen.
From here on, Khaw goes all in on body horror visceral imagery that echoes Lovecraft.
The thing in his neck is a blasphemy, a mutagenic outrage of flesh, an insult to man and beast and all of us that came crawling out of the ocean before.
But by the time the story reaches its climactic battle, I grew weary of the constant fleshy metaphors in the narrative. The whole sinew, squishy flesh metaphors, and too many eyeballs references lost their impact on me. And the battle itself, which had been built up to be this epic clash didn't really feel epic to me. It was kind of over before I knew it.

What I thought was much better was the epilogue. The conversation that takes place there between Parsons (There's a second book and Parsons is in the blurb so that wasn't a spoiler!) and the acolyte was really enjoyable. Khaw brings in a deity that Lovecraft rarely used and thus got to shape said deity in an interesting way that, for me, made up for things.

4 stars.


Monday, September 6, 2021

Book Review: Wizard by John Varley

book cover for WizardThis review will contain spoilers if you haven't read the first book in the series, Titan.

Several decades have passed since Captain Cirocco Jones and her crew had their ship torn asunder and dragged aboard Gaea by one of her sub-brains. Once Cirocco and Gaby made the arduous journey up the spoke to confront her, Gaea apologized for the actions of the rebellious subordinate that committed the attack. In the interim, Gaea has negotiated peace with Earth, established embassies there, and opened herself up to Human tourists, albeit in limited quantity.

Two travelers have come to the world of Gaea in hopes of receiving a cure for their afflictions. One is Chris, who suffers from dissociative identity disorder and was fine until he was forced to go off his meds. The other is Robin, a judgmental epileptic from a lesbian Wiccan society that believes all men are rapists. Neither has quite the meeting they'd hoped for with Gaea and must prove their mettle as "heroes" by completing an epic journey or quest to satisfy the capricious god.

Cirocco was offered—and accepted—the role of Wizard, a position second only to Gaea herself. Cirocco would travel the world of Gaea, acting as her representative and messenger, and granted perpetual youth. But the passage of time and other unfair responsibilities have taken their toll on her, and she's fallen into alcoholism. Gaby has also been awarded perpetual youth, but hers was earned through work as a civil engineer, building and maintaining a trans-Gaean road and way stations. She hates to see Cirocco suffer and resents what Gaea has done to her friend.

Gaby and Cirocco are planning a trip to circumnavigate Gaea, a periodic responsibility, and invite Robin and Chris along in hopes that the journey will give each of them a chance to "do something heroic." Four Titanides also come along for the journey. The multi-sexual centaurs are excellent craftsmen and prove invaluable companions to the Humans. But there's more to this trip than just touring the kingdom and finding opportunities for adventure. For Gaea has far outlived her expected lifespan, and her ability to give a shit is less than her desire to be entertained.

Once again, Varley utilizes a quest as the primary story structure and, like so many journeys, the characters are not the same at the end as they were at the beginning. Robin is forced to re-examine her beliefs and prejudices while Chris must learn how to balance his opposing personalities, in essence, passion versus logic. While Varley uses him as a counterpoint for Robin, he also represents all humans in the complex love-hate relationship the Titanides have with us.
"Humans brought alcoholism to Gaea. We have always enjoyed wine, but the beverage you call tequila and we call"—she sang a brief melody—"which translates as Death-with-a-pinch-of-salt-and-a-twist-of-lime, has addictive properties for us. Humans brought venereal disease: the only malady of Terran origin that affects us."
Varley isn't shy about using the Titanides to point out our species' faults, but he also recognizes that we are capable of so much more.
"And there are among you individuals with life burning so brightly within them that we are dazzled by your brillance."
My one complaint would be that a scene where Gaby discovers the identity of the antagonist who has been orchestrating malevolent events against them and confronts that person took place off screen. While we are later told about the confrontation, it would've been better for the story if the reader was shown it rather than told about it.

While Titan and Wizard were published only a year apart, Varley's writing is so much better. Characterization is much stronger and he did it without sacrificing worldbuilding. In fact, it's even better. There's less focus on numbers and more on substance. And the pacing never drags. Varley figured out how to fill the spaces between dramatic events to hold the reader's interest. The surprise ending is the icing on the cake.

4.25 stars