Book Review: Aurorarama by Jean-Christophe Valtat

Cover

Cover

Almost exactly a month ago, I ran a post over at Amazing Stories Magazine about Steam Punk and its merit as literature/ as a form of escapism. As mentioned in that post (here) the book that really started me digging into this genre was Jean-Christophe Valtat’s Aurorarama. Without delving any further into the arguments presented there, I’d like to discuss the work on its own. To try (if at all possible) to separate the conclusions I made in that previous post, and form new ones solely based on the merit of the work. We’ll see what happens!

I think it will be easiest to divide the post into things I liked about the book, and those things which weren’t so hot.

Cons:

  • The first (negative) thing that stood out to me about the novel was the fact that it felt like I was reading a sequel. Yup, definitely got the impression that all of the key events that set this plot in motion, had already happened. Also, Aurorarama carried on in such a way that there was no time to go back and explain. I’ve read many other reviewers who felt the same way. I’ve checked, and checked again, and as far as I can tell, this is the first story in the series. I know there is another New Venice book out. I’m curious as to whether it will read like a third book, perhaps it will fill in those missing details, or maybe it will take us further back much in the style of a prequel. Perhaps it will take us somewhere completely out of the spectrum that we’re used to. It will certainly be interesting to find out.
  • Perhaps the bullet above clues in to this but, Aurorarama is an almost needlessly obscure text. The suspense and mystery are held intact by the use of seemingly random plot points which the reader expects will eventually tie in to one another once we are given the ‘big reveal’. After finishing the book, I’m going on good faith in the author, that it all made sense. Honestly, without reading it a second or even third time, I’m not sure which parts were actually critical to the plot and which were just there to give you background into the world of New Venice. And as for having background into New Venice, all that you’re given doesn’t seem to be nearly enough as Valtat will just mention bits of history without really explaining what they are. Again, you just take it on faith.

Given all that I just said against this wonderful novel, there is still much to be said in its favor. I’ll try to do so presently.

Pros:

  • Valtat is a true world builder. He takes what is almost literally a blank slate (or perhaps more accurately an empty white board), the Arctic, and gives it an exceeding amount of meaning an nuance. I was originally intrigued by the premise of this book but I also was left clueless as to what to expect. I mean, really how interesting can the Arctic be? Apparently, it can be extremely interesting. Also, air ships. So that’s awesome.
  • I also found D’Allier’s character to be both extremely interesting and quite frustrating. I’ve noticed this in other stories I’ve read which feature drug addicts as main characters. Perhaps that is part of their allure. They almost never make ‘good decisions’ or the ‘right choice’ but it also seems like they don’t suffer the consequences as fully as other characters might. It also seems that events of seemingly little importance are paramount to them, while things which would traumatize a normal individual, are easily taken in stride. It is like these individuals are existing on another plane from us mortals, even when they’re not high.
  • Finally, I really enjoyed the dream sequences and shamanism present through out the novel. It seemed to be (very naturally) at odds with the seemingly industrious attitude present within New Venice (and greater Steam Punk as a genre). But also very ‘in tune’ with all of the underpinnings of the society. Somehow, it seemed both protagonist and antagonist within the story.

Well, these are just some of the things I noticed on my first run through. I’ll probably read this one again if I manage to find the time. Perhaps after I give the ‘sequel’  Luminous Chaos a read as well. It appears that novel takes place after the events of Aurorarama but because of time travel, also before (I can see things are not going to be any easier this next time haha). Give this one a read and post some comments below . . . if you dare.

Laters!

Cover II

Cover II

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A Problem with the Brew: Babayaga Fails to Meet Expectations

Harsh right? But I’m serious. I first heard of this story from a link which claimed (as so many links claim these days) to have the 12 best fantasy books of the year. Click. Read, read, read. Babayaga? Here’s the pitch:

Why it made the list: A quarter part existentialist drama, a quarter part humor novel, another quarter of cold war politics and finish with a final quarter part witches. Mix until well blended and have your mind completely blown.

Read if you like: Kafka, sad Russian novels, Hercule Poirot.

And then this shot of the cover which gets the cauldron boiling:

Awesome right?

Awesome right?

Want! Need now! Or in 12 days for it to come to my library! I gotta have it. So I order it. It finally arrives and I begin tearing through it. Ok, podding is really a better word for how I got through. I just couldn’t get any momentum. There is a character (Vidot) who is turned into a flee. He has to progress through the streets of Paris by catching rides on the bellies of dogs, rats, whatever else, and because of this he rarely gets to where he is going and must simply let things happen and see where he is at the end of it.

I felt much like Vidot. The many (well written) scenes would play out and at the end of each I would think “Well where am I now? And how do I get home?” although to be more accurate I suppose it felt more like “What did I just read and how does it have anything to do with what I read before it?” Ok, if I really want to hit this on the head, I suppose it felt like “What the hell is going on?”.

I think I felt this way for two reasons. The first is admittedly my own fault, while the second should probably be blamed upon the author.

Reason 1)

I had some time to stew about aforementioned pitch and in those 12 days I boiled it down into (what I believed) where it’s most basic elements. I had read ‘Witches’ and thought: “I love witches. I watch American Horror Story almost every week. It’s been a long time since I read a really cool witch story though.” And I read ‘cold war politics’ and immediately though “Russians! Spies? Spies! Witches & Spies! This will be great!” Totally ignored the ‘kafka’ part (I’ve never read kafka) and the ‘sad Russian novel’ part (although usually I’m down for a sad Russian doorstop as no Russian novels are short). So with dances of Russian Spy Witches in my head, I humbly waited for my adventure to arrive (still kicking myself for not seeing the flee thing coming. After all, they said Kafka)

Reason 2)

This one is all on Toby (Toby Barlow the author). I felt like the author tried to do too much. There were a lot of elements here. If we wanted to name genre we could go with detective fiction, espionage thriller, romance, and witches (paranormal? That word has a bad connotation these days so I don’t want to commit to it). It takes place in the 50’s and the protagonist, which I’d argue is Will Van Wck, works for an Ad agency. There’s a good deal of sex and smoking cigarettes so it feels like there is a hint of Mad Men here as well.

Lols

Lols

Our detective, Vidot, was clearly supposed to register on some level with other great detectives such as the aforementioned Poirot, or Sherlock Holmes (I believe Holmes was even mentioned a few times in the writing) and there were plenty of ‘Dupin St.’ type references to keep that fresh in your mind. However, if Vidot imagined himself to be a Holmes he read much more like a Watson. Passive, impotent, and really just a telescope through which the reader is able to see the events of the story (although he does O.D. on blood once so I guess he’s got the addiction thing going. Seems like a Holmes move to me. Also he’s a flee so . . .) If any of the characters are to receive the nomination for the position of Sherlock Holmes, Oliver is your man. He’s foreign (American in Paris), well connected, sophisticated, and in my opinion is the only one who actually does any investigating. However, his Watson (Will Van Wck) notes how despite all his investigations, he seems to be led further and further from any answers.

Then there’s the Witches, which (didn’t even mean to make that pun) I wasn’t particularly impressed with either. They’re vindictive and catty. I know witches have their roots in being social outcasts. Scapegoats for anything (and everything) that couldn’t be explained by religious doctrine or folk wisdom. But, I had figured we were beyond that. I guess not.

Anyway, Baba Yaga didn’t meet my expectation, but I suppose I can’t be head-over-heals in love with everything I read. I will admit that Toby Barlow writes well and in a style that I can only describe as . . . ‘Literary’. I think I just wasn’t buying what he was selling. If you have comments please leave them below.

Book Review: Maze by J.M. McDermott

Cover!

Cover!

Welcome back! Finally, a new post on A&A. I’ve been reading quite a few novels lately, and as such have been slacking on the writing aspect of things recently. My apologies. I think this is mostly due to the fact that I haven’t read much recently that I was compelled to write about. However, after finishing Maze, I knew I couldn’t sit around and not say something about it. There’s so much within this book to talk about that I hardly know where to start. I guess, I could narrow it down into three topics, the first being my general impression, McDermott’s treatment of time in the novel, and finally I’ll attempt to discuss any themes I think are relevant. By the time I’m all finished with that, my head should have successfully exploded and you should have a pretty good idea as to whether or not you want to give this thing a read (hint: you do!). Ok, here we go!

General Impressions-

In a word, Wow. I’m not familiar with J.M. McDermott, or any of his other work, but now I’d like to be. Maze follows the story of a village which must fight for survival against a myriad of strange creatures both known and unknown. I always think of mazes as 2D in as much as they eventually lead to one place and you’re confined by the walls and the pathways laid out for you. This is not the case in Maze. Trouble lurks around every corner but also in the sky and below the ground. McDermott makes use of all three dimensions and possibly a 4th if we count time as well. It’s pretty amazing to me that anything survives in this crazy world of McDermott’s creation. The horrors just keep coming. And it’s not just the Minotaur in front of you that you need to watch out for but your brother beside you who covets your wife. Or maybe the chill of the winter and poisoned blood of the . . . whatever you happen to be chewing on.

A Famous Escher Painting

A Famous Escher Painting

McDermott’s writing style is perfect for the task at hand. His clipped prose and liberal use of repetition really bring readers into the minds of the characters. So closely are you aligned with them that you might as well be in the maze yourself. You can almost taste the maggots (yea gross right? This is a world where people eat maggots on the regular). The only thing that sets you apart (besides eating maggots) is that you see five different points of view throughout the story. There seem to be many threads that tie each of these sections (called Mazes) together but you have to watch closely and it’s often still unclear as to what the relations mean. You have enough information to know that there is a larger picture, but that picture was painted by M.C. Escher.

Oh dear look at the time-

Despite the fact that you have characters arriving from all different points in history (from neanderthals to women who live in space), there does seem to be a progression as far as the ‘village’ is concerned. This ‘progression’, in spite of all the chaos, is what I find most intriguing about the novel.The members work together to survive and each year it seems like they’re better at it than the year before. When the reader first arrives in The Maze, there’s a feeling of chaos that can be quite overwhelming. And while the monsters and other creatures are certainly based on myths and legends, there is something mythic about the start. This scene, at least in my mind, seems to mimic the dawn of awareness. It’s as if, the rest of what has occurred in the Maze is simply chaos while the first character’s arrival, begins the movement towards order. This first character (Maia) is from the future, a scientist who, without any of the advancements of her former society, must survive using the simplest of tools. When she is taken in by the other villagers, she can only use tools as advanced as the village has become. She tries to teach her daughter about bacteria and germs, but because the villagers have not yet progressed through the other modes of though which precede this way of thinking, her daughter cannot grasp what she is attempting to teach. Also, just because Maia’s arrival seems to signal the beginning of something resembling order, that does not mean that there isn’t plenty more chaos to ensue.

Themes

Without a second read through (or perhaps a third, fourth or fifth), it will be tough to attempt any discussion of the themes present within this novel. There seem to be plenty, but as I mentioned before, they are obscured enough that it isn’t clear if McDermott has a deliberate message which he is attempting to convey. For instance, religion does not seem to play a very large role in the beginning or middle of the novel. It is mentioned that different members of the village believe in different gods, and their beliefs are different depending on what point in time they came from. Some members do not seem to hold any belief at all which I would think would mean that religion is either a) not important to the novel or b) religion is something to be discouraged. However, as we read about Julie Station and Lucius Caveman, it seems to be very important thematically. I mean, certainly the name Lucius Caveman is a bit loaded. And his adulterous relationship with Julie is in direct conflict with what he professes to believe. It first seems easy to chalk Lucius off as a hypocrite but as we learn more about him he is more sympathetic. In fact he starts becoming so devout that it turns Julie into something of  a succubus and we lose sympathy for her. Needless to say, my feelings were all tangled up. I wasn’t sure what to think. Maybe that’s the point.

Anyway, please give J.M. McDermott’s Maze a read through. And also when y’all have read it, please leave some comments below. I’d love to get a good discussion going on this novel as there is plenty to talk about. As far as logistics are concerned, the novel is put out by Apex Publications and releases today. Here’s the link.

Please read!

Apexlogo