May 28, 2017

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Stellar Speculative Fiction from VanderMeer, Sedgwick, and More

I never read much speculative fiction as a young man, aside from horror, which I’ve always seen as a bit of a redheaded stepchild of the genre. So I’ve been surprised at how many of these stories have attracted my attention. Today’s column features two books that received starred reviews; a couple of fascinating multimedia, multiplatform literary experiments; a few entries by some old friends; and some good old-fashioned dystopian worlds (can we call dystopia old-fashioned now? Seems like I’ve been reviewing these titles my entire professional career).

Let’s start with the books I’m most enthusiastic about. In the year between the publication of Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation and the 2015 Alex Awards, I managed to write about his “Southern Reach” trilogy in seven (!) different blog posts. It’s safe to say I was pretty high on VanderMeer that year. I have two new pieces of great news. First, Annihilation is being made into a film, directed by Alex Garland (who was behind the magnificent Ex Machina) and starring Natalie Portman. Second, and more to the point, VanderMeer has a new title, Borne. From our reviewer’s description of the work’s themes—“consequences of science without ethics, attraction vs. addiction, secrets and trust”—it sounds like VanderMeer is mining the same thematic territory as he did previously. However, Borne is a different take on a postapocalyptic world, where corporate gluttony has laid waste to civilization. I strongly recommend that readers pick up a copy, since I can guess (wink wink) that Borne will be showing up on our list of Best Books of 2017.

The other dystopian offering in this column is Vic James’s Gilded Cage (not to be confused, as I did for a solid 10 minutes yesterday, with Lucinda Gray’s 2016 YA novel The Gilded Cage—or for that matter any number of other books with similar titles). James’s selection focuses on an alternative Britain in which class structure is even more stratified than in real life. Commoners must commit to 10 years of service to “the Equals,” an elite group of magic users. Our reviewer assures us that readers will appreciate Gilded Cage for its mystery, fast pace, and strong characters, but frankly, with such a juicy premise, it would be a shame to ignore the sociopolitical implications, and I hope attentive teens spend some time thinking about the important metaphors at play here.

Next we’ll look at the multimedia experiments I mentioned. Mike Mignola and Thomas E. Sniegoski’s Grim Death and Bill the Electrocuted Criminal: An Illustrated Novel accompanies its text with visuals, offering a delicious blend of the horror, science fiction, and superhero genres. Even more intriguing is Season 1 of Bookburners. Season? Not book or volume? That’s the first clue that we are on to something unique. Indeed, Gladstone and his collaborators published this work in serial installments, both in audio and in text, so that readers could consume the story however they liked: as a kind of literary podcast, a Dickensian serial, or a stand-alone novel. This urban fantasy incorporates evil demons, magic, dusty books, and globetrotting. It’s also the second starred review of this column, so keep a close watch on this one, as well as the sequel, which is already available online.

I mentioned one old friend up top—VanderMeer—and promised a second. Marcus Sedgwick (who, among many other honors, has a Printz Award under his belt) has come out with a fascinating work of historical fiction called Mister Memory. It may not sound like speculative fiction, but it centers on a character who “has the ability to remember every detail of his life, beginning with his time in the womb”—and who finds himself at the center of a murder mystery. While many believe that there are those who possess a so-called photographic memory, Sedgwick’s vision is a step (or three) removed from anything scientists have observed.

All five of these selections are fast-paced, action-oriented novels that contain hidden depths of politico-philosophical thought—and excellent examples of profoundly stimulating literature.

FICTION

redstarGLADSTONE, Max, Margaret Dunlap, Mur Lafferty, & Brian Francis Slattery. Bookburners. 800p. (Bookburners: Season 1). S. & S./Saga. Jan. 2017. Tr $34.99. ISBN 9781481485579; pap. $21.99. ISBN 9781481485562.

NYPD detective Sal Brooks is rudely introduced to the magical underworld when her brother becomes possessed after opening an old book. To save him, she joins a Vatican task force of eclectic heroes. Together, they travel the globe capturing magical objects, destroying evil demons, and protecting the world. The plot may be familiar (see: the television show The Librarians), but the inspired character development and the breakneck action set this briskly written, hefty volume apart. The title was originally published online serially in text and audio form, like a Dickens novel, and each episode ends on a cliff-hanger. Though the chapters were written by four different authors, the volume is a strong, cohesive whole. The 13 episodes of the second season of Bookburners are already available for purchase online. VERDICT Highly recommended for urban fantasy fans (think: Cassandra Clare’s City of Bones combined with the “Indiana Jones” movies) and readers of engaging, thick books.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

JAMES, Vic. Gilded Cage. 368p. (Dark Gifts: Bk. 1). Ballantine/Del Rey. Feb. 2017. Tr $20. ISBN 9780425284155.

This captivating dystopian tale of forbidden love has all the makings of a successful YA fantasy novel. Riveting and accessible writing will quickly draw readers into a story full of surprises, grief, and mystery. The book follows two siblings at the bottom of their extremely stratified society. Abi and Luke must endure 10 years of mandatory service to the exclusive and manipulative elite class, ironically named the “Equals.” Blending modern technology and Oliver Twist–esque poverty and cruelty, James has created a Britain that teens will want to see fall. Readers will easily connect with the variety of narrators. Some may be turned off by the blatant political undertones, but the plot is so well developed that most won’t mind. VERDICT An easy sell to fans of fantasy and dystopian fiction, but be prepared—teens will be anxious for the next installment in the planned trilogy.–Ashley Selima, Lincoln Public Library, RI

MIGNOLA, Mike & Thomas E. Sniegoski. Grim Death and Bill the Electrocuted Criminal. illus. by Mike Mignola. 272p. St. Martin’s. Feb. 2017. Tr $23.99. ISBN 9781250077684.

Bentley Hawthorne isn’t your typical superhero, but he’s serving as death’s avenger. Wearing a skull face, he enacts justice by putting murderers to death. Like Batman, Bentley was raised by loving and rich parents and relies on a butler. His parents took a risk by trusting an inventor who promised to ensure that their sickly son would live a long life. Deals with the devil (or with new technology) are never without payment, and as a result of his parents’ decision, Bentley must avenge ghosts who visit him. In this pulp fiction–style novel, the action is fast and the plot a bit far-fetched (knife-wielding gorillas, mind-controlling mermaids, evil clowns). Bentley is a relatable character who has the exhausting task of assuming the guise of Grim Death. Flashbacks to Bentley’s childhood depict his transformation, and funny quips and moments temper what could have been a dark tale. The book’s wide trim size and the occasional, bland black-and-white illustrations give it a unique look. VERDICT A solid horror addition for high school libraries—perfect for readers who enjoyed Neal Shusterman’s Scythe or Gina Damico’s Croak but also for fans of paranormal mysteries or superhero comics.–Sarah Hill, Lake Land College, Mattoon, IL

SEDGWICK, Marcus. Mister Memory. 336p. Pegasus. Mar. 2017. Tr $25.95. ISBN 9781681773407.

Set in 1899 Paris, Sedgwick’s latest novel is historical fiction with a twist. Marcel Després is arrested for murdering his wife. Believing that something odd is afoot, the detective on the case becomes compelled to solve the mystery. Marcel is sent to a nearby insane asylum, where a curious doctor becomes obsessed with uncovering another mystery—Marcel’s perfect memory. The protagonist can remember every detail of his life, beginning with his time in the womb, an extraordinary talent that often leaves him in a catatonic state as his mind explores his past memories in fine detail. While the intriguing setup and the fascinating characters will rivet readers, there’s more to this book than a mere murder mystery—this work offers a deep examination of memory: how it changes, how it imprisons, and how it eventually brings answers. VERDICT A quality crime drama; hand to readers who appreciate thought-provoking mystery or historical fiction.–April Sanders, Spring Hill College, Mobile, AL

redstarVANDERMEER, Jeff. Borne. 336p. MCD. May 2017. Tr $26. ISBN 9780374115241.

The setting, plot, and characters of this novel are richly realized, but it’s the almost unbearably poignant tone that will draw in readers. Rachel lives with her reclusive lover, Wick, in a postapocalyptic city ruined by corporate greed. A giant bearlike creature flies overhead, trash stuck to his fur. He was designed to help restore order, but instead he wreaks more havoc. Rachel scavenges what she can and brings it back to Wick. Barricaded within their deteriorating apartment, they figure out what they can use. When Rachel finds a throbbing blob that reminds her of sea anemones and happier times, scientist Wick wants to kill it to understand it, but Rachel insists on letting it live. She names it Borne, and it grows quickly until one day it speaks. Borne’s coming-of-age is also Rachel’s, but as the two mature, Rachel’s and Wick’s lives—and the city itself—are at risk. Themes such as the consequences of science without ethics, attraction vs. addiction, secrets and trust, and the rewards and heartbreak of parenting (pets, children, or monsters) provide food for thought on top of an exciting survival story. VERDICT Suggest this title to teens who love layered, unusual, harsh, yet ultimately hopeful dystopian tales such as Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven or Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One.–Hope Baugh, Carmel Clay Public Library, Carmel, IN

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Mark Flowers About Mark Flowers

Mark Flowers is SLJ’s Adult Books 4 Teens cocolumnist and a supervising librarian at the Rio Vista (CA) Library.

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