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Divergent, by Veronica Roth

Title: DivergentDivergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 487 pages
Genre: YA dystopian
New or Re-Read? New!
Rating: 4 stars

This book was super-entertaining.

I’m probably the last person on earth to read this, but I will nonetheless treat this review as though I’m not. I will also confess that it was the movie trailer that finally made me pick it up, though it’s vaguely been on my to-do list for a while — and I’m so glad I did. Divergent is an intriguing and exciting ride, high-octane and full-throttle.

16-year-old heroine Beatrice lives in a future-Chicago that has been isolated from the rest of the world. Its society is split into five factions, each of which espouses a different virtue: Erudite, which values learning; Dauntless, which values courage; Amity, which values friendship; Candor, which values honest; and the faction Beatrice was born to, Abnegation, which values selflessness. At the age of 16, each member of this society can choose to stay with their home faction or to join another — but they only get the chance once, and before they do, they take a psychological test which reveals their aptitude for one or another. When Beatrice takes the test, however, the results are “inconclusive”. She learns that she is something called “Divergent” — and that it is a dangerous thing to be, though no one will explain why, and she’s told to keep it a secret.

When her Choosing Day comes (and this is a spoiler, but I can’t really talk about the rest of the book without it, so, here goes), Beatrice somewhat impulsively decides to leave Abnegation and to join Dauntless. Her initiation process is fraught with peril and terrors. The Dauntless value the conquest of fear, generally through the confrontation of it — and this also includes the confrontation of pain. Beatrice takes on the new name Tris and has to prove herself worthy of inclusion in the faction, or face being tossed out to join the factionless — portrayed as tragic figures without homes, families, or purpose. She quickly earns both friends and rivals, though even her new friendships are far from certain, given the competitive nature of the initiation process. She also discovers a rift between Four, her trainer, and Eric, one of the Dauntless leaders, representing two different versions of the faction’s values — Four, interested more in truly conquering the fears within, and Eric, interested in brute force and the acquisition of power.

The story is interesting both psychologically and sociologically. I like what it has to say both about the human mind and about the nature of societal constructs. As the story progresses, Tris becomes more aware of the moving parts of the adult world that she’s been sheltered from most of her life, and she realizes that none of the five factions are quite what they were in the beginning, or what they claim to be, or what they perhaps wish they were. I also really like the idea that, over however many generations, these virtues have all degraded into vices. The story of the trilogy, I’m sure, is going to be about re-assimilating those disparate parts into a functioning whole — hinging, it would seem, on the Divergent, which is of course why those currently in power are so afraid of them and want to eradicate them. It’s an intriguing dynamic, and I look forward to seeing it play out.

There’s a lot about this book that feels derivative, but I don’t necessarily mean that in a bad way. The Choosing and the factions definitely have echoes of Hogwarts Sorting, and the overall tone of the book definitely feels a lot like The Hunger Games. Katniss and Tris could easily be living in the same universe, just a century or so apart. I was also thinking as I was reading that it had a lot of similarities with The Giver, and then Roth confirms in an interview at the back of the book that that is, in fact, one of her childhood faves. (You can feel that influence particularly in Abnegation and what little we see of Amity, I think). But Divergent doesn’t feel like a rip-off of any of these things — they just seem to be in conversation with each other, which I enjoy.

The romance in this book feels much more natural than in a lot of YA — it has a chance to develop over more time in-world, it’s confused and by turns both hesitant and impulsive, and Roth lets her teenage characters have both sexual desire and sexual reluctance. That’s only one element that makes Divergent rather a more mature YA book than others I’ve read. The violence is another — it’s unrelenting, even moreso, I think, than in The Hunger Games. That might come down to the use of guns — somehow that seems more real than a bow and arrow or a sword. It happens fast and casually at first, then with brutal severity, and Roth seems willing to describe injuries in more graphic detail than Collins.

The book’s biggest weakness is that it, like so much YA fiction, is written in first person present, which I personally just don’t care for. I think it forces authors into a lot of awkwardness, particularly when it comes to exposition — and I’m someone who would always like to see more sides of the story, rather than just one character’s experience. It also means that, since the reader gets spoon-fed certain information that totally gives away a “big reveal” right from the star, it makes Tris seem a little dim for not putting it together.

I’ve seen some other reviewers criticize the book’s pace, and I didn’t have a problem with that — while it does take a while to get to the “main plot”, the rest doesn’t move slowly at all, in my opinion. I was easily caught up in Tris’s dilemmas and her struggle to prove herself. Those challenges drive the first few hundred pages with enough force and energy that I didn’t mind how late the macro plot came in. Tris’s micro plot was plenty captivating. On the whole, Divergent is thoroughly entertaining, start-to-finish. I look forward to reading the rest of the trilogy.

A Coda: What, like I wasn’t going to take the chance to pontificate about what faction I’d be in?

Definitely not Abnegation or Candor. Selfless, I am not. Generous, but not selfless, and I choose the people I want to be generous towards very selectively (because I am, also, a Slytherin). While I am generally honest, I’m not necessarily open all of the time — I’m prone to sins of omission and white lies of a protective nature. So… Amity, Erudite, or Dauntless? What draws me to Amity is that they appear to be the only one of the five factions that still places any value on the arts — but otherwise, I’m pretty sure I’m not happy-go-lucky enough, nor of a pleasant enough disposition, to fit in there. Erudite? I am intellectual and curious, and I like learning, but I’m not always logical, and their intellect certainly seems to focus on maths and sciences, not on verbal or creative intelligence. My academic strengths and the things I like to explore aren’t the ones they value. The question, really, isn’t what I think now, but what I would’ve chosen at the age of 16, and I can say with certainty that it would’ve been Dauntless. The badass aesthetic certainly would have appealed to me, as would the idea of turning myself into a warrior. Those were things I yearned for. I wanted to be both tougher and more exciting than I was. And I think the ethos of facing fears and conquering them has great appeal — a lot of my life has been about clawing my way past one obstacle or another. My attitude has always been that if I want something, of the world or of myself, I’m going to have to tear it out with my teeth. I have a lot of fears, really, and mostly I avoid them, but I can grit my teeth and steel my way through them if necessary — and if I had to do that more often, I suspect I’d be a stronger and better person. No idea whether I would have survived the initiation process (I can imagine all too well what terrors would’ve been in my simulations), but I like to think I would’ve responded well to the challenge.

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Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2010
Length: 390 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.5 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active for entire series

This book was not at all what I expected. And I sort of love it for that.

I knew right from the start that it wouldn’t be, that I wasn’t getting Return of the Jedi. District 13 is about as far from a utopian paradise as you can get. It’s a complete military state, to the extent that each citizen’s schedule for the day is temporary-tattooed on their arms when they wake up. Everyone has a place and a responsibility, cogs in a machine. Practical, but creepy — and it clearly rubs Katniss the wrong way. Fortunately, since she’s still classified as “mentally disoriented”, she can get away with not following orders all the time, but it doesn’t take her long to start finding out just how far she can push her new allies. They want to use her as the Mockingjay to unite all of the Districts in rebellion against the Capitol, but they’re having some trouble stabilising her moods, not to mention dredging her out of despair about Peeta. She’s pissed as hell that the rebel operatives chose to save her and leave him behind, and when she finds out he’s not dead but captured, controlled by Snow, she’s naturally pretty concerned for his safety.

So, a lot of the book is Katniss adjusting to life in 13, pushing her limits, and trying to come to terms with having to live up to the image the public has of her. What does it mean to be the Mockingjay? How can she be that and stay true to herself?

There’s something really beautifully subversive in this book, and I don’t just mean about that reversal of expectations. On the surface, this book seems to be so unlike the first two. The situations are entirely different. The characters have changed, some to be nigh-unrecognisable. But the mechanics are gruesomely similar. Katniss is still stuck in the Hunger Games. Only they’re playing for keeps now. The Games were, of course, always deadly serious to the 24 combatants, and to an extent to people in the Districts, but they were still so choreographed, so thoughtfully executed. War isn’t, even when you try. There’s no hope of begging aid from on high, of getting sponsors, just for being impressive. In war, reinforcements and supplies come only when you’ve planned for them, not dropped as if by magic out of the sky. Critical differences — but critical similarities, too. Collins, brilliantly, doesn’t harp on this theme much — but she lets it shine in tiny details (details that I’m wondering if they would be as apparent if I hadn’t devoured all three books in under 48 hours). Like when, during the mission in the Capitol, Katniss tries to reckon up who they’ve lost, repeats the list to herself, just as she did her list of opponents during the Games, to keep track — only now it’s not to keep track of who’s still a threat, but to remember who they’ve lost. Similarly, the Capitol broadcasts those suspected still alive (even when some are already dead), which echoes the projections of dead tributes during the Games. And then there’s how Katniss still has to play for the cameras, still has to put on a good show, not to win sponsors, but to keep up the spirits of the rebels in the Districts. She’s still styled, throughout the book, both in 13 and on the road, still putting on a show. Still accompanied by a camera crew (a rather morbid commentary, I feel, on our current 24/7 news cycles). Even down to those damn silver parachutes at the end, even down to what ultimately happens with Prim, so many details of this book echo the Games and the first book, but in such brutal, sadistic, horrifying ways.

I also enjoy how this book subverts so many expectations. Katniss doesn’t turn into a 100% badass warrior chick. The love triangle between her, Peeta, and Gale does not consume the story. The rebels are not necessarily the good guys. The story is not one of glory and triumph. It’s dark, definitely edgy, and occasionally hard to read. It’s a lot of psychological trauma for a young adult book to deal with, but I think Collins handles it pretty deftly. The subversion of the romance angle is particularly nice. Gale turns out to be just a little too violently inclined, a little too gung-ho about playing just as rough and mercilessly as the Capitol does. Katniss isn’t sure what to do about that, and she clearly struggles with what these revelations about Gale’s character, about the man he’s grown into, mean for any potential future between them. Meanwhile, Peeta has been brainwashed by the Capitol via a form of psychological poison. By the time the rebels retrieve him, he thinks Katniss is a genetically engineered abomination trying to kill them all, and he nearly strangles her. It’s a far cry from the contrived images of the happy couple they had to create earlier. Getting him back is a long, slow process, and with both Peeta and Katniss suffering some pretty severe PTSD, Collins isn’t shy about stating that neither one of them will ever come back completely. Part of them will always live in this dark world, in these terrifying circumstances. They will never be what they were before or who they were before. But that doesn’t mean they can’t salvage something out of the ashes. (Salvage is, incidentally, a pretty big although subtle theme throughout all three books).

There were some flaws. A couple of times the action jerked around so fast that I got a little lost and had to back-track to figure out just what had happened. A significant character’s death got sandwiched in a way that I nearly missed it entirely. And Katniss possibly spends just a little too much of the book out of it — either literally or psychologically. In some ways it’s effective, to display the effects all of this is having on her, but in some ways it’s just really frustrating to have your heroine and narrator continually knocked out of either consciousness or sanity.

This paragraph has an extra spoiler warning on it because it really is the granddaddy spoiler, since it’s about the ultimate endgame. So. Be ye warned.

I knew Katniss was going to have to kill Coin even before she knew it. Coin proved, so thoroughly, that she wasn’t any better than her opponent. Rule by 13 would have been no better than rule by the Capitol — just restricted in different ways. While the Capitol celebrates excess and indulgence, flinging human life away for entertainment value, 13 buckles everything down until there’s no room left to breathe. Individual life and choice don’t have any meaning there, either, but for completely different reasons. There, it’s all about serving the cause, being the well-functioning machine you’re meant to be. Each civilisation represents one end of the Evil Empire spectrum, but they’re both pretty horrific to consider.

What we come to learn is that, for District 13, this war was never about liberation, never about freeing the Districts from the yoke. President Snow was right about that — 13 could’ve helped them in the first rebellion, but instead they cut and ran. No, for District 13 and for Coin, this was about revenge and domination. She wanted her own empire to rule, larger and more satisfying than subterranean 13, and she didn’t care who she had to throw under the bus to get that. Individual life meant as little to her as to Snow; she would sacrifice whoever and whatever in order to win. With her out of the picture and someone saner at the wheel, there’s hope that Panem might yet turn into a functioning republic, as the District rebels hoped.

So. Overall, it’s hard to say I enjoyed this book, because so much of it was so painful. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t exquisite. Collins crafts a fantastic story in a complex world (a world that I’m sort of annoyed I still don’t know enough about, but that’s my own private obsession with dystopian world-building, there). Katniss is a remarkable heroine, who defies expectations at every turn — both of her handlers, her friends, and of the reader. She won’t be what anyone else wants her to be, and that includes us. I appreciate that. Collins has done something different, which is quite an achievement. I want more heroines like Katniss in the literary world.

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Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Title: Catching Fire
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 391 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4+ stars
Spoilers: Armed and active for both this and The Hunger Games; I don’t know how to talk about this book without them, unfortunately.

The last time I felt this way about a series was starting Harry Potter, back almost a decade ago. Nothing else in recent memory has matched the sheer irresistibility of this series. I’m a little floored, honestly, by how much I’m taken with this series and how desperately I need to move on to find out what happens. But I thought it important to pause and capture my thoughts now.

Catching Fire ups the ante in a big way. It continues more or less seamlessly on from the end of The Hunger Games. Katniss and Peeta are expected to go on a Victory Tour around all of the Districts. The trouble is that unrest has been sizzling in some of them for a long time, and Katniss finds herself the inadvertent mascot of rebellion. No true uprisings have broken out yet, but you can feel them simmering, low-burning embers, all through this book. And that’s terrifying the living hell out of the Capitol. Enough so that the President himself feels compelled to visit Katniss and make a few well-placed threats against her family and friends.

This includes Gale, who was kind’a-sort’a Katniss’s boyfriend before she went to the Games, but who she’s had to treat as an amiable “cousin” ever since she got back, since her only thread of protection lies in being able to claim that love for Peeta made her act so defiantly. There’s a lot of emotional entanglement between the three of them, and I think it’s handled very well. It’s not overblown or made into the stuff of melodrama. Instead, all three act in the time-honoured manner of teenagers everwhere: with extreme awkwardness. They don’t know what to say to each other, how to act. And it doesn’t help that just as soon as poor Katniss is thinking she’s set her heart on one, the other will do something spectacular to sway her around again. And yet, all without turning her into just some pathetic chick.

Is it wrong of me to hope that Katniss will get to live polyamorously happy-ever-after with them both? Yes. Yes, it is. That would barely pass muster in fairly edgy adult fiction; it’s going to be another century or so before you could get away with that in young adult. What I then assume is that either Gale or Peeta has to die. So, then, is it wrong for me to hope that it’s Gale? Nothing against the guy at all, but he’s not the one we, the readers, have spent as much time with. My emotional investment lies far more in Peeta.

So. All of that’s going on, and then District Twelve has a really hard year. It’s partially to punish Katniss — law enforcement becomes really strict, the minor infractions (like hunting in the woods) that folk used to be able to get away with, they can’t anymore — and it’s partially just bad luck, from a really hard winter. Desperation’s sinking in, and even while Katniss feels the urge to rebel burning deep inside her… she can’t. Not with so many people relying on her. Not with so many innocent lives at stake.

And then the Capitol changes the rules on everyone again, and announces that for the 75th Hunger Games, they’ll be drawing only from a pool of prior victors — who are supposed to be exempt for life. The second half of the book deals with this. With no other female victor living, Katniss has to go for 12, and though their mentor Haymitch’s name is chosen, Peeta immediately volunteers to take his place. So they’re back, and have to quickly determine who among the other tribute-victors they might be able to trust at least long enough for a temporary alliance. The arena designed for the 75th Games is diabolical and utterly ingenious, and in some ways I wish they’d gotten to it earlier in the book in order to spend more time examining it.

Some other reviews I’ve seen charge that Catching Fire suffers from middle-of-trilogy syndrome and that it’s slow to get going, that too much time is spent on exposition in the beginning. I couldn’t disagree more. I think this book is superbly strong, and I don’t feel it has any of that lag. In fact, I sort of wish they’d spent more time on the Victory Tour, describing the various Districts — but that’s because I’m obsessed with world-building, especially in dystopias. I want to know everything. From what I can gather, District 4 is probably Gulf Coast (wherever the coastline actually is now), because their main industry is fishing. 3 seems like it might be Detroit-ish, as they focus on electronics and manufacturing. 7 seems like Wisconsin-Minnesota, timber country. 11 I can’t quite place, because it might be either the South or the Midwest. I’m guessing Midwest because the agriculture seems a bit more wheat-and-corn, though in Book 1 Rue does talk a lot about orchards — but also because, if part of the cataclysm leading to this world setup was rising waters, most of the agricultural south is probably under the Atlantic Ocean now. Anyway — I wish I knew more. I want to know about all the Districts, where they are, how many people, how they got to be the way they are. What we do learn along the way is that District 11 is much more strictly controlled than 12 has been, and that the people there seem to be getting sick of it.

So. This book is fabulous, the series is fabulous, I’m moving on to Mockingjay as fast as may be — and it looks like it’s going to have pretty much my favourite thing over. Not just a dystopia, but a dystopian rebellion. I am aquiver with excitement.

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The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins

Title: The Hunger Games
Author: Suzanne Collins
Year of Publication: 2009
Length: 374 pages
Genre: young adult – dystopian thriller
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 5 stars

It has been a long, long time since I tore through a book as quickly and as avidly as I tore through this one. The word for The Hunger Games is, absolutely, “compelling.” This is a book that grips you by the throat and doesn’t let go.

The book takes place in a dystopian future — which gets me right there. I love a good dystopia. North America as we know it has fallen to pieces, thanks to what the heroine vaguely describes as “the disasters, the droughts, the storms, the fires, the encroaching seas that swallowed up so much land, the brutal war for what little sustenance remained.” The civilization that replaces America is called Panem, a cluster of districts ruled by the Capitol. There were once Thirteen Districts; now, after a failed rebellion, there are only Twelve, with the Thirteenth having been obliterated in the war. As a reminder to the Districts of its power, and to prevent further rebellions, the Capitol holds the Hunger Games each year. Each District sends two tributes each year, a boy and a girl between the ages of 12 and 18.

In coal-mining District 12 (probably situated in what was once West Virginia, based on the descriptions), Katniss Everdeen volunteers to take her sister’s place when twelve-year-old Prim is chosen. The “reaping”, as the ceremony is grimly called, is a stark look at how the government can so easily manipulate poverty. A twelve-year-old has his or her name entered once, a thirteen-year-old twice, and so forth — but, you can also choose to enter your name more times in exchange for tesserae, allotments of grain and oil. This is a frequent occurrence in District 12, impoverished and struggling. Katniss has been her family’s provider since she was 11, when her father died in a mining accident and her mother slipped into a deep depression. She’s now sixteen, with her name put in 20 times; her friend Gale, with more siblings to support, has his name in 42 times. And yet it’s Prim, with her name only in once, because Katniss wouldn’t let her take on any more risk, who gets called.

And this is all just in the first few chapters.

Katniss goes to the Capitol to prepare for the games, along with Peeta, the male tribute from her District — a boy who once threw her bread when she was starving, near-death, before she learned to hunt and trap. They’re up against others like themselves, unwilling tributes who’ve never had a full belly in their lives, but they’re also up against tributes from wealthier Districts, where the Games are not a punishment but a chance for honor and glory, who’ve trained their whole lives for this moment. Katniss experiences the shock and confusion of being treated like a pampered pet even though she’s really a beast for slaughter, and through her eyes, we see the horrific, casual cruelty of a society that places enormous monetary value on her life but no spiritual or moral value on it whatsoever. Because the Hunger Games are entertainment, televised and trumpeted.It’s the Olympics as bloodsport. (It’s no surprise that everyone in the Capitol seems to have a Roman name — Flavius, Octavia, Cinna, Portia — because there’s certainly a smack of the Colosseum about the whole thing). The tributes have to compete not only against each other in the field, but also for sponsors, who can send them life-saving gifts during the Games — and the tributes who put in the best show during the opening ceremonies, training, and interviews. Katniss, both feisty and sullen, unable to conceal her resentment, is saved from making a total mess of things partially through her own audacity and partially through the machinations of the District 12 handlers, who manipulate circumstances so that Katniss and Peeta look like star-cross’d lovers. The burden for that is on Peeta (and for a long time Katniss isn’t sure if he really has feelings for her or if he’s just playing the game), but Katniss reaps some benefits of it, and eventually learns to work the angle herself.

The strength of this book is in the relentless way that Collins builds suspense. Even when Katniss is on something resembling “downtime”, healing from wounds, feeding herself, scoping out the lay of the land, it never feels as though the action slows down. There’s always another threat, always something else lurking on the horizon — and those things explode into action with magnificent force. The Games are a fascinating look at survivalism; the “Career Tributes” from the wealthy districts may know how to fight, but they don’t know how to hunt for food, find safe berries to eat, or bandage up their wounds. Eleven tributes are killed outright in the first battle, but from then on, it becomes a matter of playing advantages and covering for weaknesses. It’s gruesome, deeply troubling, heart-poundingly thrilling, and unexpectedly emotional. There was one moment that got to me, not because of who died or the way in which she did, but because of Katniss’s reaction to it — and the unexpected benefit that Katniss received afterwards. I don’t want to throw in a spoiler, but it’s a really poignant moment, and it made me tear up. And then it’s right back to breath-holding suspense.

So, this book is fantastic. Collins has created not only a fascinating dystopia, but also an eminently relatable heroine. I’m usually not a fan of first person narratives; they have to be done really well for me to like them. And this one is. Katniss’s voice is wonderful, practical and laced with sardonic humour, but you also get to hear her struggling with vulnerabilities she doesn’t want to admit to. She is not a perfect person, but she’s a tremendously engaging protagonist.

I know I’m late to the train, and I don’t know why. It wasn’t for lack of interest, I just somehow never got around to picking this book up. Probably no one actually needs my recommendation to read this book, as I suspect I was the last person in America not to have done so already. But if you do need it, here it is: Read this book. Immediately if not sooner. I’m off to get Catching Fire and Mockingjay right now, because I can’t stand not knowing what happens next.

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Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 1: Preludes and Nocturnes
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1991; individual comics 1988-1989
Length: 240 pages
Genre: graphic novel – horror/fantasy
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

I am of the opinion that the Sandman graphic novel series is one of the most staggering works of creative genius that the last hundred years has given us. I think it’s an utter masterpiece, a towering vision of imagination and veracity. It’s a series that has so much to say, that you can return to again and again and always notice something new. It’s a story that, as only the best stories do, lays open the heart of humanity, exposes it raw, and then somehow massages new life into it — or perhaps just breathes the spark of awareness back into the reader, so that we see truths that were always there but had never noticed, or forgotten. I think it’s complex and magnificent, a paean to storytelling, a love song between mortality and eternity.

All of that is true.

Unfortunately, I don’t much like the first volume in the series.

Oh, there are things about it that I like, but on the whole, it’s one of the less impressive installations. And then even those parts of the story which may demonstrate great technical merit fall into the category of “so not my thing”, which impedes my enjoyment.

The first issue is one of the better ones — or at least one of the ones I enjoy more. It tells the story of how an Edwardian magician, just after the Great War, determines to capture Death, so that no one ever need suffer again as so many did during that global crisis. Unfortunately, the spell goes awry, and Alexander Burgess ends up accidentally imprisoning Death’s younger brother — Dream. In the wake of Dream’s captivity, strange things begin happening in the mortal world — people who either fall asleep interminably or are unable to sleep at all, who lose the ability to dream or who find themselves trapped in nightmares. Dream also loses three important possessions: his helm, his bag of sand, and a ruby in which he has stored much of his power. 72 years pass before Dream can free himself, and when he does, his mission is one of both recovery and revenge. His journeys take him throughout the mortal realm, into Hell, and into the tattered remnants of his realm, the Dreamworld, falling to pieces in his absence.

I think part of the problem I have with this book is the element of the grotesque — especially in the art, and especially in the art of John Dee. Slobbering, slimy, melting, sloughing off John Dee — the man who ends up in possession of Dream’s ruby, a deteriorating psychopath who uses its powers for horrific evils. Gaiman himself describes the issue “24 Hours”, in which Dee sadistically manipulates a group of people in a diner to gut-wrenchingly awful circumstances and eventually deaths, as one of the few truly horrific things he’s ever written. And in writing and art both, technically, it’s well-done — Dee is, after all, supposed to be repulsive, and the story is meant as horror, so in the sense that the artist achieved the desired effect, it’s a success. But I don’t like being repulsed by things. I don’t pick up books hoping to feel my stomach churn.

For that reason, I’m generally not much for the horror genre, and for the first few issues, that’s what Sandman thought it was. It moves much more strongly into metaphysical fantasy later on (which is when I start cleaving so enthusiastically to it). The initial horror focus, though, is just one of the ways in which the series clearly takes a little while to find its feet — which Gaiman admits in, among other places, The Sandman Companion (which I’m reading in conjunction with the series). The attempts to mate his imagined universe with the existing canon of the DC-verse isn’t particularly smooth (a trouble that the next collection also has, but that eventually ebbs away). The incorporation of the Justice League International is pretty awkward, and it’s for the best when that connection gets more or less broken.

For my money, though, the best issue in the collection is the last, “The Sound of Her Wings,” wherein we meet Death, another member of Dream’s family, the Endless. This is the first issue where you truly get a sense of the scope of the series, as well as its arching mythology. Dream, moping over his recent trials, has some sense beaten into him (via a loaf of bread) by his big sister. She then takes him with her throughout a typical afternoon, as she welcomes mortals of all kinds into her embrace. It’s an iconic story, and one that sets the tone that I think defines the series far more than the preceding issues do. (It echoes later, in The Kindly Ones, but that explanation will come along later).

This collection is aptly named. As Preludes, these issues set up the series to come, previewing but not explaining, testing the waters before plunging in the deep. Gaiman had to find his ground, and it takes a little while. As Nocturnes, they are stories of darkness and depravity, of the alarming recesses of human psychology and inhuman torment. Ultimately, these are not the issues I enjoy. But I have to admire the technical merit, and it is something to see a writer’s process almost in-work, even from decades later.

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Every Which Way But Dead, by Kim Harrison

Title: Every Which Way But DeadEvery Which Way But Dead (Hollows #3)
Author: Kim Harrison
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 501 pages
Genre: urban fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3.5 stars

These books are weirdly addictive, considering that I still find the heroine too stupid to live, that I still think it would be better told in the third person than in the first, and that I like almost all of the secondary characters more than the heroine.

And yet… I tore through this. I mean, it’s not a challenging read, by any means, but it is longer than the first two in the series, and long for a MMP. And it’s engaging. The plot of Every Which Way But Dead is a lot tighter than in the first two books, and it moves along at a better pace.

In Every Which Way But Dead, Rachel has to deal with the implications of having become a demon’s familiar, in The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, in exchange for his testimony against the vampire Piscary, who was trying to kill Rachel at the time the deal was struck. Piscary now being in jail, Rachel also ends up having to deal with the fallout from that: a city-wide scramble to take over his former areas of influence. Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been following the story thus far, Trent Kalamack is mixed up in it. There’s also a new player on the field, a Mr Saladan, an accomplished ley line witch. Thanks to this mess, the danger in this book gets amped up a bit.

The characters also all get a little more well-drawn in this book. Ivy’s fallen off the wagon and is a practicing vamp again, which is troubling but also seems to have a good effect on her temper. Jenks has a temper fit when he learns Rachel’s been keeping the secret of Trent’s species from him. Kisten turns from a vapid playboy into someone we see really struggling, hurt by Piscary’s dismissal of him in favour of Ivy, trying to hold Piscary’s business together with both hands. Trent lets Rachel in on more of her own background as well as his, and his current situation and elven politics. We also meet Ceri, the demon’s former familiar, a 1000-year-old elf, and David, a Werewolf insurance agent. As I said — the rest of the cast is intriguing and complex. It’s Rachel I find annoying and dim. My biggest problem with her is that she will full-out know something is a bad idea, will admit that it’s stupid and going to get her into trouble… and then, invariably, does it anyway.

And, I’m not afraid to admit it — I like the smut. Wish there was more of it. I will cheer the day Rachel and Trent get it on (because I simply can’t believe the series won’t end up there sooner or later), but in the meantime, Kisten’s pretty entertaining. I like him better than Nick, who runs off, unable to deal with the backlash from Rachel accidentally making him her familiar. (And are you noticing how all the plot points are the result of poor decisions or incompetence on Rachel’s part?). He always seemed like a placeholder, though; Rachel’s vague thoughts about being truly serious with him always rang pretty false.

Also, if the combined forces of Kisten and Trent can get Rachel to stop dressing like she collided with the clearance rack at Hot Topic, I will be so thrilled. I cringe every time Harrison starts describing leather pants and red halter tops. I can’t decide if she’s trying to be ironic or if we’re genuinely meant to find that cool, but either way, it’s pretty dreadful.

So, overall — I’ll probably stick with this series. It’s not a priority, but I’ll keep alternating them into my schedule so long as they keep getting better rather than backsliding. These books are Twinkies for the brain — no nutritional value, pretty empty fluff, not going to fill you up, but, y’know, tasty enough for a quick sugar fix.

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The Good, the Bad, and the Undead, by Kim Harrison

Title: The Good, the Bad, and the UndeadGood Bad Undead
Author: Kim Harrison
Year of Publication: 2005
Length: 453 pages
Genre: urban fantasy/magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars

If I keep reading this series, it will be entirely for Trent Kalamack.

I totally called it, by the way. His secret, I mean, the mystery of what he is. Called it back in book one, because, let’s face it, there’s only one supernatural species with that kind of charm. And so I find him fascinating. He’s my favourite thing in the series (especially since Jenks and Matalina didn’t figure as strongly in this book as they did in the first). Smooth, suave, genteel yet ruthless, unflappable yet intense — it all makes for a delicious anti-hero.

I still have trouble with Rachel as a heroine. The sheer number of times someone says to her, “This is a bad idea, here are the reasons why, how about we wait five minutes to form a better plan?” and she then blindly charges off, it’s just absurd. It’s hard to sympathize when bad things happen to her, because she so blatantly invites them all in. I also still feel like the rules of the world aren’t clearly enough defined. Whether that’s because Harrison hasn’t defined them for herself or because she’s holding them back, I don’t know. It’s getting a bit better as Rachel explores ley line magic, because that forces some definitions into the narrative, but there’s still so much that’s maddeningly vague. Like, how is it that some humans can use the same magic as witches? It seems to take them a lot more effort, but it sort of feels like that ability ought to be what makes witches… witches. And there are still a lot of blurry lines around the edges of the alternate history and the Turn and just how the Inderlanders kept society together, not to mention how it’s currently operating. This all sort of hovers in the background without much explication, enough to be interesting, not enough to keep from frustrating me.

The plot is also fairly uneven. The bits with Piscary and Ivy don’t twine together with the “witch-killer” plot as well as they probably ought to, and the “witch-killer” plot itself never has all that much power behind it. We learn about too much of it in retrospect, rather than actually feeling the mounting tension of a serial killer at work in the shadows. It’s precisely the sort of thing that the Pendergast series does so well, but Harrison doesn’t do it at all here. One of her perpetual problems seems to be that of telling rather than showing, which is a guaranteed story-killer.

I can tell that Harrison is improving, though. I’m just not sure it’s enough, or that it’s happening quickly enough, to hold my attention. But, the steamy scenes in this book are a lot more enticing than in the first. The moment where Ivy snaps and offers to make Rachel her scion is hot and heavy, and the following sex scene with Rachel and Nick is pretty good as well. And then there’s the epic tease with Kisten in the elevator. And, like I said, there has been some improvement in the world-building.

Overall… I’ll probably given the third book a go, but I’m in no rush. This series is so far good enough for idle entertainment, but it’s not winning me over as a true and dedicated fan so far.

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