Dogears: All About the Monsters

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AnnihilationAnnihilation Jeff Vandermeer FSG Originals 2014

Jeff VanderMeer
FSG Originals
February 4, 2014

Wow. I often go out looking for strange, great science fiction and just cannot find quite the right story to quench my thirst. Luckily, my friend handed this to me when she was done reading it. It also comes recommended by Stephen King, which is usually enough to get me to read anything.

The story is told through the lens of the Biologist who enters a strange land, Area X, with three other scientists (an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a psychologist). This story was a slow uncovering of disturbing human behavior and fantastical nature. All of the characters are women, which simultaneously seemed like a big deal (women scientists in fiction!) and was not at all important to the story. Their mission is to collect samples and record their trip in their journals. It is the Biologist’s journal that we are reading. The narrator is a strong individual and exciting to learn more about as she discovers the land around her and we discover glimpses of her past. The tale is dark and at times uncomfortable, but always worth the anxiety.

This is the first in a trilogy (The Southern Reach Trilogy), all three were published in the same year, and I can’t remember the last time I was so excited to continue a series.

— Al Rosenberg

Starcraft: Queen of BladesQueen of Blades Aaron Rosenberg Pocket Star 2007

Aaron Rosenberg
Pocket Star
May 1, 2007

I’m a big fan of gaming lore, and enjoy reading the books and comics that expand a video game’s already rich story–even for games I haven’t actually played. In this case, my husband played Starcraft II and eagerly shared all the major cutscenes with me. I instantly fell in love with Sarah Kerrigan, played by one of my favourite voice actresses, Tricia Helfer.

This is the story of Kerrigan’s emergence as the vengeful Queen of Blades, after being left for dead by her commander. It’s told from the point of view of Jim Raynor, the game’s main protagonist and Kerrigan’s would be lover had things not turned out so poorly for the couple. I had hoped to get insight into Kerrigan’s transformation and what it was like for her–and the prologue seems to imply that–but then it switches to Raynor’s point-of-view. He follows the lead of Kerrigan’s telepathic dreams to the planet Char, where Kerrigan now lords over the deadly bug-like Zerg. Despite the telepathic bond, we get little insight into Kerrigan’s mind, and, when the Zerg’s mortal enemies, the Protoss, show up, the book settles into a long back and forth chase sequence as the Protoss leader attempts to gauge Kerrigan’s abilities. Raynor literally runs along behind them, detailing the encounters, as the formidable aliens fight and exchange melodramatic, villainous dialogue. There are implications through Raynor’s dreams that there is still good in Kerrigan, but those brief interludes get lost in the continued back and forth that really doesn’t teach us much about the Protoss, or the titular Queen of Blades. Gaming lore is meant to enhance the main storyline of the game, without punishing the players who choose not to consume it, but sadly, this didn’t add much for anyone.

— Wendy Browne

Second StarSecond Star Alyssa B. Sheinmel  FSG 2014

Alyssa B. Sheinmel
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
May 13 2014

In this modern re-imagining of Peter Pan, Wendy is a teenage girl, who has lost her two younger brothers, John and Michael. They were surfers who went off to catch a wave one day and never came back. Everyone else thinks they’re dead, but Wendy holds onto the hope that they’re still out there somewhere.

One day she decides she can no longer sit at home and wait around, while the police and her parents do nothing. She heads out to search for them and along the way she finds a community of surfer kids who live in an abandoned house by the beach. She decides to stay with them for awhile, because they claim they don’t know anything about her brothers, but she’s not sure she believes them. She’s also drawn to the leader of the group, a handsome, confident and adventurous boy named Peter.

This novel deals with grief in a very honest way. Despite the fact that Wendy’s brothers have been missing for months, and there’s evidence to believe they drowned, she refuses to accept it. She lives in a constant state of denial, clinging to the small shred of hope that they’re still out there. It is only after she heads out on her own, and has her own experiences that she begins to process her grief and come to terms with what has happened.

However, there is absolutely no reason for this to be a Peter Pan re-imaging and if anything it distracted from an otherwise thoughtful story. Rather than drawing parallels between the character’s different struggles, the allusions felt forced and at times even gimmicky. J. M. Barrie’s original story, felt like something Sheinmel leaned on, keeping her story back from standing on its own. I think Sheinmel could have some interesting things to say, so I hope she gives herself room to explore in her future writing.

— Christa

ThresholdThreshold Caitlín R. Kiernan Roc 2001

Caitlin R. Kiernan
Roc
November 1, 2001

I’ve read Threshold before, more than once in fact. But right now I need something old and familiar to read before going to sleep every night, so I chose a horror novel based around a mysterious trilobite, philosophical musings on God, angels, monsters, and an ending that flirts with the fragility of reality. Threshold was also the first time I ever met Dancy Flammarion, the albino demon hunter from the Florida swamps that shows up in the Dark Horse series, Alabaster: Wolves.

When they were teenagers, Chance and two of her friends broke into the old waterworks, stoned and drunk, and something happened. They found something, down in the dark, that none of them want to talk about. Now Chance is working on her graduate degree, most of her friends and family are dead, and her neatly planned future seems very bare. Then Dancy drags Chance’s ex-boyfriend Deacon, and death-rocker Sadie, back into Chance’s path, telling them an angel has charged her with killing monsters. Chance has always tried to ignore the mysterious visions Deacon sometimes gets, and the rumors that he once was a psychic bloodhound for the Atlanta Police Department, but now his visions may be the key to explaining what lurks underneath their town. Some seriously creepy things ensue, and Chance’s orderly, rational life falls apart as they confront horrors that the human mind can’t comprehend.

So there’s a huge helping of Lovecraft, minus the racism, and really well sketched out characters, each unique and believable. You can tell Kiernan knew people like this from the care she takes with details, from Chance’s practical boots and flannels, to Sadie’s shiny coffin purse filled with mints, wadded up tissues, and an eyeball keychain. Deacon’s alcoholism is tawdry and sad and totally understandable as he tries to drown the visions he doesn’t want to have. The house in the story is its own character in a Gormenghast-kinda way, and the paleo lab is super detailed, as the author used to work as a vertebrate palaeontologist.

The plot is solid, but the ending gets a little weak, as you try to wade through Chance’s mind as she describes something she can’t comprehend. Kiernan actually comes back to these characters in Low Red Moon (which I’m re-reading now), so it seems she may not have been entirely happy with the finished story either. The best parts are when the horror starts to creep out into Chance’s everyday life, and Dancy’s conviction of the angels and monsters populating her world. She reminds me a lot of another of Kiernan’s weird girls, Snyder Baxter from her first book, Silk. Overall, Kiernan’s books are good for scratching a very specific itch: Lovecraftian horror fought by smart paleontologists or enacted by crustpunks living on the edges of society, visions and end-of-the-world level badness populated by the inhabitants of a dive bar that only serves absinthe and cheap whiskey. Threshold probably isn’t the first book I’d recommend to someone just starting on her work. It’s good for the completist, or before reading Low Red Moon, and is a pretty good book, but not her best work.

— Sarah Richardson

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2 Comments

  1. Al Rosenberg on

    Hmm, definitely going to check out some Caitlin R. Kiernan now.

    Wendy! I loved that when I read it when it came out. But I tried to revisit a lot of the Starcraft fiction recently and it was so disappointing. 🙁

    • Claire Napier on

      Kiernan’s “Silk” was the first novel I read with a significant, prominent character who was ~alternative AND not thin. Made a huge impact. I just donated it to a charity shop, actually, so somebody else can benefit from that buzz. It’s very cool to know she kept writing, and kept her girls weird.