Wednesday, June 25, 2014

People of the Morning Star: Historical novel blends myth and intrigue

**This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 3 out of 5 stars.**
People of the Morning Star, by the archaeologist couple Kathleen O’Neal Gear and W. Michael Gear, is pretty interesting once it gets going.
It is set in the Native American (Mississippian) settlement of Cahokia, a city located near modern-day St. Louis, whose population in the 1200s would have made it one of the largest cities in the world. In this book, Cahokia is ruled by the Four Winds clan, led by the Morning Star, a god incarnated into the human flesh of Chunkey Boy, a Four Winds clan youth. The social structure of Cahokia is highly stratified; the most favored clans rule the others, with merchants and traders having less status, and “dirt farmers” having the relative status of peasants or serfs.
A threat in the form of a mysterious character named “Bead” enters Cahokia, bent on killing all of the Four Winds nobles, especially Morning Star, in order to claim his lost love, Lady Night Shadow Star, the sister of the former Chunkey Boy. His identity, his motivation, and his ultimate goal, however, remain a secret for most of the novel as he wreaks secret vengeance on his enemies through a web of co-conspirators sprinkled liberally throughout Cahokia’s class system. Night Shadow Star, however, has given control of her life and her “souls” to Piasa, the underwater panther spirit of the Underworld. Although the spirits of the Underworld are inimical to the spirits of the Sky, Morning Star allows his sister to commune with Piasa because her connection to this deity has proven useful. Her foresight has saved the lives of several nobles from Bead’s surprise attacks.
The story of People of the Morning Star, and Bead’s sinister plan, is gripping and intense. Bead is a genuine psychopath, and the chapters written from his perspective are beyond creepy. The slave Fire Cat and his begrudging loyalty, the roguish thief Seven Skulls Shield, the charmingly irascible Keeper — all of these characters are believable and fun to spend time with. Only Morning Star remains a cipher and, I think, suitably so; it maintains the mystery of whether or not this man is the god incarnate, or just the former Chunkey Boy playing the role for life. And I really liked the weaving of ancient Mississippian mythology into the plot; it was interesting to learn about these deity figures and their backstories through the lives of their Native American counterparts.
My major complaint about People of the Morning Star is that it tries too hard to educate its readers about this ancient civilization. For example, the prologue is a preachy modern-day vignette about a young Native man, John Wet Bear, learning about his Cahokian heritage. He becomes enraged and homicidal when he finds out about some white characters’ plans to exploit the story of Cahokia. His uncle talks him down from violence, and John replies, “Yeah, Unc? You think it was that way [in Cahokia]? Think our ancestors had anyone like me? Ready to sacrifice himself in the battle against evil?” This line was too on-the-nose, Hallmark-special for me.
The Cahokia-based story does not indulge in such cheesiness; it does, however, indulge in so many details that it feels like an encyclopedia description rather than a novel. I almost quit reading the book because the story took so long to get started. The first half spends too much time on world-building, and not enough time on character or plot. There are lots of descriptions of pots, weapons, buildings, clothing, and social structure. I understand that the Gears are archaeologists and highly invested in educating the public about the civilizations they study, and I laud them for this effort. I, for one, had no idea about Cahokia and am glad that I know about it now. But this book didn’t strike a particularly good balance between world-building and story-telling. I’m glad I stuck with it and finished it, though; the (eventual) story was really good.

The Long War: Searching the High Meggers for a plot

**This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 1 star out of 5.**
The Long War, the second installment in Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter’s five-book LONG EARTH series, is more tedious than the first one, probably because I have already seen the inside of their bag of tricks and I am no longer impressed.
This sequel happens about 12 years after the events of The Long Earth. Joshua, now married and with a son, has been summoned by his old friend, Lobsang (the AI reincarnation of a Tibetan motorcycle repairman) to go on another journey through the Long Earth, all the way up into the High Meggers, the worlds over a million “steps” from Datum Earth.
The Long War also follows a lot of other characters, some from the first novel and some just introduced, on un- or loosely-connected journeys of their own. For instance, the US Navy Commander Maggie Kauffman, who wants to figure out how to protect the trolls, who have started suffering violence at the hands of humans. Or the Chinese expedition headed to the East to explore 20 million Earths. I kept thinking that some of these plot elements would be developed. For instance, Roberta, the sad, socially awkward teenage genius on the Chinese mission — what is her deal? The book gave me enough to be curious, to feel like she might be a linchpin of a sort, before leaving it all hanging.
I actually cared about the plotline with the trolls. They begin warning each other via the “long call,” a way that they can communicate across worlds, to avoid humans. Some humans think of them as animals, and use them as experimental subjects or harvest their bodies for organs; other want to offer them citizenship as sapient beings. Maggie ends up enlisting some into the Navy, granting them crew-status on her ship. This story arc felt realistic, like Baxter and Pratchett were exploring the diversity of potential human reactions to alien life.
But I don’t understand why two British authors would center their series, which is about the ultimate shake-up of the structure of human civilization, around the continued existence and dominance of the American government. The Long Earth, a space without meaningful boundaries, begins to erode ideas like national borders. And Baxter and Pratchett do address this complexity head-on, diving into the politics that might surround such a paradigm shift. However, in the restructured civilization they imagine, America has found a continuation in a Long Earth settlement called “Valhalla,” and the kind of government they portray is, in most of its values and practices, no different from America as we know it today. A large chunk of The Long War revolves around the political battles of Valhalla — but the politics and governmental structure of the rest of the world is scarcely mentioned.
The characters in The Long War were also less believable and less likeable than they were in The Long Earth. Lobsang changes from a quirky AI being exploring the limits of his consciousness and the universe into the omniscient, omnipresent creepmaster-general who reincarnates his friend, Sister Agnes, into a big-breasted female body without (it seems) her consent, just so he’ll have someone else to talk to. His old pal Joshua seems to have turned into a married sad sack who can’t really decide between his former traveling companion Sally (although her allure is beyond me, and apparently beyond the writers, too, who describe her as “greying,” “wiry,” and constantly tell you how many pockets her outfit has) and his wife Helen, who is jealous of Sally. Joshua’s adolescent crush on Sally was not developed enough in the first novel for it to be such a big issue in this book, but an issue it is. Still, I can’t muster up enough engagement with any of the main characters to feel sorry for Joshua’s split longings between his home life and his adventurer life.
Finally, the title is misleading, since there is no war to speak of in this book.
A better read are some of the GoodReads comments on this book, which are scathing and hilarious. My favorite one came from reader Graham Crawford, who references the series’ premise of infinite worlds where the forces of nature have created different Earths. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “we live on the ONE world where the forces of nature did NOT prevent this book from being written.”

The Gates of Sleep by Mercedes Lackey

**This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 2.5 out of 5 stars.**
The Gates of Sleep by Mercedes Lackey, part of her ELEMENTAL MASTERS series, is a fun, harmless read based loosely on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale.
Growing up, I had always been drawn to Mercedes Lackey books, mostly because of the lush cover art, usually drawn by Jody Lee. But then, unfailingly, I’d read the blurb and decide not to read it; they usually sounded too involved, too conspicuously “high fantasy,” or otherwise cheesy and formulaic. (I love high fantasy, but I must have been a hipster when I was a kid because I couldn’t stand it if the book seemed like it was trying too hard.)
So I was pleasantly surprised by how engaging I found this book. Lee’s artwork is the perfect companion to Lackey’s prose, which is rich and descriptive. The world she creates for The Gates of Sleep is set in the English countryside and is replete with rushing brooks, dappled forests, and bright flowers. It feels like the work of the Pre-Raphaelites set in prose, which is no accident, given that Marina Roeswood, Lackey’s protagonist, spends the first sixteen years of her life living with her godparents in what amounts to a provincial artist’s colony. Lackey spends a lot of time setting the scene, describing the paintings, tapestries, carved wood furniture, and pottery that Marina’s godparents surround her with.
Her godparents aren’t only artists, however. Each of them is an elemental mage. They can channel spirits of specific elements — fire, earth, air. Marina, as her name suggests, is a budding water mage who also has an affinity with the element of air. She spends her days posing for her painter uncle, cooking, reading, playing music, and hanging out outdoors with the sylphs and undines that correspond to her magical powers.
Unbeknownst to her, Marina was cursed at her christening by her aunt Arachne, who was not supposed to have magical talent. Her estranged parents and devoted godparents have spent sixteen years looking for a way to counteract the curse while hiding Marina away. Just before her seventeenth birthday, however, Arachne’s minions show up and whisk Marina away to a huge estate where she is watched night and day by Arachne and her son, the “odious Reggie.” Their sinister plan is to drain Marina of her magic while also gaining access to her money and land, inherited from her parents (killed mid-book by Arachne).
I listened to The Gates of Sleep on audio, read by Kayla Fell. Her narration was good, but not exceptional. I’m not an expert on regional English accents; most of the book she read in an accent that, hard-pressed to describe it, I’d call “northern” or even “Yorkshire.” She kinda sounded like Ygritte from Game of Thrones, drawing out long vowels — “Yooo knooooow nothing, Jon Snoooow” — which was fun. But she mispronounced a couple of words, and I felt unconvinced by some of her character voices.
I liked that The Gates of Sleep kept surprising me, heading one way when I was sure it was going to go another. For instance, I was sure that Odious Reggie would be reclaimed and turn out to be Marina’s Prince Charming…  until his extracurricular activities made it clear that no amount of reclamation would make him a suitable mate for our heroine. I also really appreciated how much time was spent discussing the system of magic; Lackey established early on what methods the mages used, and what limits there were to their magic. Her characterization, too, was deep and heartfelt. I felt as if I knew Marina and her family, and I liked them.
Unfortunately, the villains were not as well drawn. Madame Arachne and the odious Reggie were like cardboard cutouts of villains. Arachne reminded me of the stepmother from Cinderella, all icy propriety. In fact, her role visavis Marina ended up being more that of the wicked stepmother than the malevolent fairy, since they were thrown together in the same stately manor and Arachne was charged with grooming the girl for society. Reggie was even worse than his mother. Everything he said was so fatuous (which was partly the point) that it seemed difficult to swallow that he was really involved with a complicated magical bid for revenge. For instance, he kept addressing Arachne in Latin — “mater” — which made me imagine him as the kind of dude who has a pencil mustache, a linen suit, and a monogrammed cigarette holder. (Incidentally, Kayla Fell was really good at making Reggie sound like an awful douchebag.)
The other big drawback to The Gates of Sleep was how complicated and rushed the ending was. The culminating battle introduced so many new rules and methods to Lackey’s carefully drawn magical system — We can fight in dreams now! And if I kill you in a dream, you die! — that it was like a whole host of deuses emerged from the machina. And the inevitable romance between Marina and a humble but magical country doctor came out of nowhere. As in, “she suddenly realized that she loved him,” when there had been no significant flirtation or discussion of burgeoning feelings beforehand. Maybe this is just the effect of reading a fair amount of chick lit, but when I’m reading a book with several detailed descriptions of dresses, I expect an equal proportion of emotional play-by-play. Marina’s situation in the big, lonely house watched over by unfriendly relatives was too much like an Austen or Bronte heroine for there to not be any corresponding relationship angst.

The Quick: Not (just) another vampire novel

**We've been selling out of this book at the store lately, which really boosts my confidence in my book-picking abilities, because I loved this book and have been recommending it to customers. This review originally appeared here at, where I gave the book 4 stars out of 5.**
The blurb of Lauren Owen’s debut novel The Quick piqued my interest, with its talk of an unlikely romance, Victorian London’s secret underworld, and a mysterious members-only institution, The Aegolius Club. And its cover, an understated black-and-white photo of a young man reading in a library, spoke to the part of me that loves elegant, emotionally-withdrawn period dramas. Had I known it was another vampire novel, I might have been less excited about picking it up. And that would have been a real shame. While this first novel has some faults, the confidence and skill with which it is pulled off is astounding.
One of the coolest things about The Quick is that it doesn’t scream “vampire novel.” I got swept up in the story before I realized that something strange, perhaps even supernatural, was happening behind the scenes. The V-word is only used two or three times in the entire book, and (best of all) none of the marketing suggests vampires. The blurbs don’t use the word, the cover doesn’t have pallor-tastic sexy young things, the title doesn’t drip blood, all of which means that I was legitimately surprised (just like we humans would be in the real world) when, a hundred pages in, the first vampire attack occurred.
Of course, the writing’s pretty good, too. Lauren Owen doesn’t really attempt to write like a Victorian — her sentences are much too short, for one thing — but her eye for detail makes the world she creates come alive. She describes one character’s love of tulips, saying that he “would keep them for days, letting the petals come loose and the stems wind across the table like slender green snakes.” I read that sentence at least three times when I first encountered it, reveling that this author perfectly captured a phenomenon that I had seen but never really noticed.
The biggest drawback of The Quick is that, at times, it felt like the story Owen was telling got a little bit too big for her. For instance, the majority of the first hundred pages occurs from one character’s point-of-view. Then the book shifts, quickly, between several different character perspectives. The effect is jarring; I wanted her to weave these perspectives together more seamlessly from the beginning. Owen also directed my attention to some plot elements that didn’t end up being as big a deal as I’d thought they would be, like James hiding Doctor Knife’s journal in the sepulcher, or the legendary figure of the Seraph. The lore-nerd in me wanted more backstory for the vampires — who were they and where did they come from? (But let’s face it, I’m the kind of reader that wants every fantasy world to come complete with a Silmarillion.)
The plot itself moves relatively slowly. Although the main action of the book takes place in only a few weeks, The Quick begins with a scene from the protagonist’s childhood and ends seventy-some years later. This telescoping effect makes the major conflict of the book seem, in retrospect, more like a footnote — one of the thousands of stories that could have been told about characters we’ve been privileged to eavesdrop on.
Ultimately, this wasn’t really a story about vampires. It was a story about the emotional fallout when the supernatural intrudes, violently and tragically, on the human world. The Quick’s strongest point is its emotional reality. Owen’s description of the character’s emotional lives is just as detailed as her description of tulip stems, tender without crossing into excessive sentimentality. The six primary characters are wonderful, and their connections to each other feel true. Love takes everyone by surprise. A good thing, too, because the world they live in is sad and hard, and love is about the only thing that makes it bearable.

Friday, June 06, 2014

The Word Exchange: Literary Thriller with a side of Doomsaying

When I started listening to Alena Graedon's The Word Exchange on audiobook (read by Tavia Gilbert and Paul Michael Garcia), I was bowled over. The sheer beauty of Graedon's language, the book's inventive dictionary structure, its references to Alice in Wonderland, and the compellingly plausible mystery of the Word Flu hooked me from the beginning. But . . . ah, there's always a but, isn't there?

The Word Exchange is largely composed of the journal entries of two employees of the NADEL, the North American Dictionary of the English Language: Anana "Ana" Johnson and Horace "Bart" Tate. Ana's father, Doug Johnson, is the NADEL's general editor, and he has gone missing, leaving behind one clue: the word “Alice.” As Ana and Bart try to get to the bottom of Doug's disappearance, they uncover an even more sinister truth: something, or someone, is destroying language, starting by wiping out the NADEL's corpus and ending with a pandemic virus that attacks human language centers, rendering people incapable of speaking or processing language as they used to.

The world Graedon writes about in The Word Exchange is not too far removed from our world, perhaps only a few years in the future. In this world, Memes—devices something like our smart-phones, but with a lot more features, such as the ability to predict the user's needs—are ubiquitous. People hail cabs, pay bills, text, chat, and play games on them. They also use them to look up words on the titular The Word Exchange, a sort of online dictionary. So far, so familiar, right? 

Doug's disappearance coincides with the release of a new version of the Meme—the Nautilus. This device attaches directly to the user's skin, merges with their bio-matter, and does not require a screen. Instead, it projects images, smells, sounds, and other sensations directly into the brain. Oh, and it gives the user an overwhelming sense of calm and well-being. Not creepy at all . . . 

Doug, an inveterate lover of print and books, has always warned Ana against using her Meme. His worries are proven correct when Ana discovers that use of the Meme (and, to a greater extent, the Nautilus) is strongly correlated with the Word Flu, a disease that is spreading through English language speakers. Before it kills you, the Word Flu manifests as mild to severe aphasia, which Graedon has cunningly inserted into the first-person narrative of her characters. The effect is incredibly eerie. Ana and Bart both begin to use words that aren't words: "zhaman," "eezow," and "lavo." While the reader can still make out the meaning from the context, the casual, off-hand delivery of these words lends The Word Exchange a deep sense of foreboding. 

Ultimately, the Big Bad ends up being a corporation. The academics, banded together in a secret group called the Diachronic Society, help save the day and civilization by coming up with a cure for the Word Flu. Spoiler: it involves reading books. Hooray for the Humanities!

Graedon's writing is strong, lyrical, and descriptive; I was especially impressed with the verbs she chose, as in this sentence: "My neck petalled with heat." The writing was also emotionally resonant. I caught myself choking up several times as Ana described her frustration, panic, and sadness. At the same time, it was emotionally restrained. Take this example, Ana's description of two ex-lovers having coffee: "Doug said it was 'nice," Vera that it was 'pleasant," which I think means it was sad for both of them." That understatement completely captures the sense of resignation and loss I associate with meetings-with-exes.

But, after a while, the detail The Word Exchange lavishes on us became too much for me. There are so many consciously creative descriptions of people ("a laconic brunette with luminescent eyes who speaks as if she has marbles in her mouth") and of physical sensations* ("my stomach fluttered like a wind-torn plastic bag") that, at some point, it just felt like showing off. Worse, it got in the way of the story moving forward.

The main character, as quirky and lovable as she was at first, also began to grate on me. Several reviews have pointed out how TSTL Ana is and it's true; she puts herself in danger several times against the warning of her friends, her past experience, and her better judgment. But even dumber, I feel, is her attraction to either of the men in her life. Both Max, the rich cheating ex-boyfriend with a gold toilet, and Bart, the overlooked sweet-and-sensitive work-friend, are pretty arrogant and proprietary of Ana. Max's attitude towards her is more obvious, and more egregious, but I was also put off by Bart's assumption that he's the only guy in the world capable of really "getting" Ana. He seems to think that, because he loves her for her brain and her body, he automatically deserves her. (Also, Bart name-drops European philosophers and cool bands and calls his thoughts his "pensées," so, no.)

Listening to The Word Exchange on audio also had its strengths and weaknesses. I really enjoyed both readers. Gilbert especially read with an emotional range that contributed to my verklempt-ness. And hearing the book rather than seeing it compounded the eerie feeling I got when Graedon began dropping the verbal “slips” into her character’s speech. Instead of being able to scan back over a word visually and confirm that it was a “slip,” I was perpetually in the position of the characters themselves, wondering “Did I just hear what I think I heard?” At the same time, though, hearing it occluded some of Graedon’s creativity. Some of the “slip” words, for instance, were spelled with Cyrillic letters, a difference that didn’t come across strongly in audio. And one of the book’s best examples of word play, the Creatorium (rather than the cretorium), didn’t come across at all; I had no idea until I looked at a paper copy that the word was intentionally spelled differently.

In the end, however, the biggest problem I had with The Word Exchange was that, without exception, it privileges the written word over the digital text. While I will be the first to admit that the relentless digitization of our world has its problems, I am not a doomsayer. The history of language is full of sea-changes and each one has come with its attendant crisis. Language always changing slowly, imperceptibly; that process just speeds up when a new technology appears. From stone to manuscript, to hand-press print, to industrialized automated printing, to digital text—each of these textual revolutions came with major shifts in the methods of (and purposes for) disseminating human language. And each one inspired fear and concern. When the print revolution happened, people associated printed texts with low-class, with trash, with easily disseminated heresy, evil, and wickedness. They worried about the rise of literacy hurting our eyes and causing diseases like brain fever and hysteria. They worried about not being able to remember things any longer because they'd be written down. Language and access to language has always been policed (who gets to write? who is taught to read? what kind of texts can they access, and how?) and the current furor surrounding the digital revolution is not fundamentally different from the worries that happened when print was invented and began to be widely used, nor is it different from worries that attended the rise of radio, TV, the telephone, etc.

Despite this, people still resist language change. While it does not seem like Graedon is one of those people herself (she admits to using a smart-phone), her book memorializes written and printed text and puts it on a pedestal. Graedon's book speaks to our nostalgia for print, a nostalgia I certainly take part in, but it doesn’t really offer much else as a compelling alternative to the digital world we already live in.

*An interesting experiment would be to count how many different ways Graedon describes Ana's sensation of nervousness.

(This blog post originally appeared at, where I gave it 3 out of 5 stars.)

Monday, June 02, 2014

In Penny Dreadful there is a barber slitting throat-o-graphs . . .

Hmmm. That title might have been a reach. (But the show really does reference Sweeney Todd, so . . . I'm leaving it.)

At any rate, I have been watching Penny Dreadful lately and I LOVE it. I think it's the best new fantasy series since Game of Thrones started. Better than Grimm, Dracula, OUAT, Witches of East End, and Wizards of Waverly Place. Just kidding, I haven't seen the last one. And, to be fair and open-minded as I dole out superlatives, I still haven't seen Orphan Black. (But is that fantasy, or science fiction, or something else entirely, she mused before snapping out of what was sure to become a trip down the literary-categorization rabbit hole).

The titles are lovely, evoking the Downton Abbey or the Black Sails titles--mostly shots of objects, like still lifes. However, these particular still lifes are covered in spiders and snakes, and the tone is a darker and more ominous. A teacup fills with blood and drops to the floor, shattering. Carrion beetles swarm. A torso, covered in stitches, rotates.

Eva Green, of James Bond fame, plays Vanessa Ives, an enigmatic woman with as-yet-to-be-explained occult powers. She is the friend? former lover? business partner? of Sir Malcolm Murray (played by Timothy Dalton, a former Bond), whose daughter Mina has been seduced by vampires. Yes, that Mina Murray. To find Mina, they team up with Ethan Chandler, played by Josh Hartnett (whose voice, I never noticed before, sounds almost exactly like Jon Hamm's), a sharpshooter visiting London to escape from as-yet-to-be-explained legal troubles in the US; and Victor Frankenstein--yes, that Victor Frankenstein--a young doctor who needs money to fund his experiments. Also, Eva Green has caught the eye of Dorian Gray. Yes, that Dorian Gray.

You'll notice several patterns emerging, most notably how the lives and backstories of literary characters of the Victorian gothic novel begin to intersect in really interesting ways. In essence, it's not unlike what the creators of Once Upon a Time are trying to do with fairy tales. But where OUAT is clumsy, heavy-handed, and without meaningful emotional highs and lows, so far, Penny Dreadful is clever, elegant, and even lyrical in some moments. Its intertextuality works; you can tell that the show-writers have thought a lot about the connections between these characters and what they might mean. The show even gestures toward literary characters outside its main corpus of inspiration. Shakespeare gets several nods, as per usual, but the most interesting one to me was The Phantom of the Opera. Frankenstein's monster--called Caliban and played by Rory Kinnear--takes a job at the Grand Guignol theater in London. As he skulks under the stage, mangled face half-hidden by a veil of Snape-like black hair, peering out at a beautiful actress, he looks just like Erik, the Phantom, obsessing over Christine.

The dialogue is a lot better than any of the shows (other than GoT, whose dialogue I adore) I mention above. It's witty without overreaching. It still sounds basically realistic for Victorian speech. And peppered in are beautiful, passionate speeches, like the speech Frankenstein gives Murray when he's talking about his ultimate goal, the preservation of human life and extinction of death. These performances are high points, almost as chilling (albeit in different ways) as the show's horror.

Which is, I must tell you, horrible. I don't like horror. I don't watch it, I don't read it, I look away when trailers for scary movies come on. Even Alfred Hitchcock is a bit too frightening for me at times. So I debated about watching Penny Dreadful. I decided to give it a try in full daylight so, if it was too scary, I'd still have some time before bed to work it out of my system. And it is pretty scary. But for some reason it doesn't go past my limit. I think it might be because I am familiar with these characters and their storylines, so the basic element of terror--surprise--is somewhat muted. It also might be that, so far, there hasn't been too much of what really freaks me out: hard-core supernatural stuff, hauntings and whatnot.

Although if you watch it, you'll probably wonder where I'm coming from. The second episode revolves around a seance that goes about as wrong as a seance can go. If that's not hard-core supernatural, then what is?, you rightly ask. All I know is, I liked that scene and found it immensely watchable. Maybe it's because the main character, Vanessa, is likeable despite her mysterious nature. Maybe it's because I'm caught by the central mystery--who is Egyptian god behind all of this? Or maybe it's because Eva Green did some baller acting and should maybe try out for Cirque du Soleil, she's so eerily flexible.

It all makes me wonder if I should start tentatively dipping my toe in the pool of horror (in moderation, and in daylight). After all, Thomas Middleton was interested in several aspects of horror--human evil, supernatural forces, lots of shocking gore. Several minutes of the fourth episode, "Demimonde," take place at the Grand Guignol, a name I know only because today's reviewers of Middleton's plays often liken them to the shocking, splashy plays that debuted at that theater in the Victorian period. If I appreciate Middleton and what he's consciously doing with those elements, perhaps I can develop an appreciation for modern horror.

I think I'll always prefer my horror in the guise of fairy tales, though.

*As a Middleton fan, a theater historian, and a lover of fantasy, it was a true and nerdy joy, a real intertextual moment for me, to watch Rory Kinnear, who starred as Vindice in Melly Still's The Revenger's Tragedy at the National Theater, play Frankenstein's monster-called-Caliban and run around the underbelly of the Grand Guignol, operating antiquated stage machinery and properties with unabashed glee.

The Long Earth: an ambitious let-down

The Long Earth by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter is a really interesting book without being a particularly good one.

The concept for The Long Earth itself arises from a short story Pratchett wrote before he became Pratchett with a capital P. Essentially, there are other versions of Earth strung out like a strand of pearls in parallel universes--called "the Long Earth"--and the ability to travel to these Earths has begun to spread through the human race with the advent of new technology called the “stepper.” The technology itself is pointedly pointless; it is literally a potato connected, with some wires and electrical components, to a switch. Using this, people can step “East” or “West” of what comes to be known as “Datum Earth” — our Earth. The most obvious difference between the worlds of the Long Earth is that only on Datum Earth did apes evolve into homo sapiens.

This concept allows Baxter and Pratchett to explore a multitude of fascinating ideas. What would Earth look like without human impact? How about if an asteroid crashed into it a million years ago? What if the climate was cooler, or hotter? What other species would evolve given different conditions? The main characters explore these possible Earths, and more, as they travel West down the line of planets. The parallel Earths of the Long Earth also allow Pratchett and Baxter to consider what it might mean for our planet and civilization if we stumbled onto a wealth of unlimited resources.

One of the problems of The Long Earth, though, is that it is crammed with too many interesting plot points, as if it is a grab-bag of all of Pratchett and Baxter’s good ideas. The explorers encounter other sapient species out in the Long Earth — a gentle, singing ape-like species they dub “trolls,” an aggressive hog-riding species they call “elves,” and the archaeological remnants of a long-dead dinosaur species. Each of these discoveries would be enough material for a book on its own. However, in addition to these close encounters, the human explorers begin to sense an ominous presence far out in the Long Earth. Waves of sapient species are escaping from it, running down the line of planets towards Datum Earth. But there isn’t enough emphasis put on this plot point (ostensibly the big mystery and climax of the novel); instead, it feels like one among many threads. And when the protagonists do finally encounter the colossal species threatening other sapient life, the show-down is more of a let-down. Baxter and Pratchett’s alien antagonist had the potential to be very scary, almost Lovecraftian, but somehow it comes across as anticlimactic.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints. Joshua Valente, a teenager who is preternaturally good at stepping, is the nexus of most of character relationships. His friends include a cop trying to unravel the mystery of stepping, a brash lady-explorer named Sally, a nun named Sister Agnes, and an artificial intelligence who claims to be the reincarnation of a Tibetan motorbike repairman named Lobsang. However, most of these characters felt flat and unrelatable to me. I’ve spent a lot of time wondering why but I still can’t really put my finger on it. The best description I have is that they felt like collections of characteristics rather than real people. Perhaps they weren’t given enough interiority; sometimes I didn’t really understand why certain characters acted the way they did. I felt genuine distaste for Sally, who is too precise a parody of sassy tough lady-hood. She is prickly and sarcastic even when it seems unwarranted and, despite giving the impression of a sharp wit, her jokes aren’t very funny.

Which could be one of the main reasons I didn’t, on the whole, like The Long Earth very much. Terry Pratchett’s trademark humor was completely absent from this book. What attempts at humor there were consisted of characters making lame jokes to each other in dialogue sequences that felt like they belonged to an action blockbuster. Granted, the point of this book wasn’t to be funny and it’s perhaps unfair of me to expect Pratchett to do the same thing every time — like expecting a comedian to be “on” when she’s just picking up her laundry. And some of the more ridiculous ideas — the potato that powers the stepper, the reincarnated Tibetan motorcycle repairman — do seem to have a Pratchett-ian stamp. It makes me wonder what the division of writing labor was like between Baxter and Pratchett, but also makes me incalculably grateful that Pratchett found a niche with the Discworld series.

Baxter and Pratchett have both signed on for a total of 5 books and, despite the lackluster writing and characterization, I will probably continue to read the series just because I find the main idea so compelling. I’ve always wished I still lived in the days before Google Earth, when you could still find untouched islands. In the Long Earth, the exploration is limitless.

*This blog originally appeared here, on, where I've been accepted a post as a staff reviewer! Woot!