Capsule Reviews – December 2017

The Genius Plague, by David Walton 4.5 (out of 10)
The Book of Dust, volume 1: La Belle Sauvage, by Philip Pullman 9.0
Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr, by John Crowley 7.4
Barbary Station, by R.E. Stearns 5.4
The Spark, by David Drake 4.4
genius plagueDavid Walton’s The Genius Plague has a promising setup: a pathogenic fungus spreads rapidly among the human population, raising the hosts IQs to genius levels, but also forcing them to act in ways that eschew individual agency in favor of ensuring the continued viability of the fungus. The most intriguing aspect of that premise is the idea that people of ordinary intelligence can suddenly become geniuses (and also that the fungus may be able to cure Alzheimer’s and other degenerative brain illnesses), but Walton chooses to focus his tale on the race to stop the fungus from spreading. In doing so, the novel comes off as an attempt to mimic the kind of hot button science thriller Michael Crichton made famous, but the formulaic plotting fails to ensnare, and much of it hinges on an increasingly improbable set of coincidences managed by a group of uninspiring characters. The novel is spilling over with interesting scientific tidbits, but there is little else to recommend.
la belle sauvageFrom the moment its existence was announced, there hasn’t been a novel I’ve looked forward to more than La Belle Sauvage, the first volume in The Book of Dust, Philip Pullman’s prequel trilogy to His Dark Materials. I had little doubt the book would be good; the pleasant surprise is that it turned out to be great, if not quite the unparalleled classic that is The Golden Compass/Northern Lights. Set a decade or so before, La Belle Sauvage is the story of eleven-year-old Malcolm, who, with the help of teenager Alice, must protect an uncannily charismatic infant named Lyra from a psychotic disgraced scientist, agents of the Consistorial Court of Discipline, and an extraordinary natural disaster with fantastical and frightening implications. Like most prequels, it is best understood in the context of the stories written before it, but new readers should enjoy it all the same – it is a classically structured chivalric romance, in which a hero devoted to his ideals sets out on an adventure full of wonder and thrills. La Belle Sauvage is often dark and scary and violent, though still appropriate for (less squeamish) middle grade readers.
Ka 1John Crowley’s writing is so graceful and lyrical and contemplative that his novels often feel like long elegiac poems masquerading as prose fiction. His latest, Ka: Dar Oakley in the Ruin of Ymr is quite possibly the most John Crowley-esque of John Crowley novels. It is a beautiful work of art – enchanting and reflective, rendered in stark images and hermeneutical musings on the nature of life and mortality. It is also relentlessly and frustratingly cerebral; intellectually and aesthetically satisfying but lacking any identifiable emotional core. It is essentially the history of western civilization as experienced by an immortal crow named Dar Oakley. As climate change wreaks havoc on the natural world, an injured Dar Oakley relates his life’s story to an unnamed human narrator, who filters it through his own experience with a recent tragedy. Dar Oakley’s biography is captivating, the narrator’s relationship to the crow and his tale less so. A thrilling and complex – if somewhat opaque – novel.
barbary stationBarbary Station, the debut novel from R.E. Stearns, is the story of Adda and Iridian – two deeply in love engineers who desperately want to become space pirates (!?!) – who hatch a plan to join an infamous crew that recently hijacked the titular space station. Once they arrive at their destination they discover that the station’s AI actually returned the favor and hijacked the pirates, and the couple’s hopes for gainful employment (and staying alive) rest on their ability to wrest control of the station back from their captor. Adda and Iridian could have easily been voted “least likely to want to become space pirates” by their high school classmates; one of the strengths of Stearns’ worldbuilding is that their prospects in this hyper-capitalist dystopian future are so bleak that it is convincingly their most attractive option. Stearns definitely has a talent for disseminating the nuts and bolts of tech-savvy hard sci-fi, and Addy and Iridian’s relationship is sweet and affecting. The book often feels like it was written for and by a gaming enthusiast, which gives it a kind of “nerd chic” sheen, but also, unfortunately, gives the story a chunky, attention deficit feel. The plot unfolds at a distracting, scattershot pace and at times struggles to stay focused. The novel is interesting enough to make me want to see more from this author, but not enough to get a higher recommendation.
sparkThe Spark is a hybrid science fantasy/Arthurian romance by popular MilSF author David Drake, set in a world where humans are plagued by incursions from deadly monsters that cross over from a neighboring dimension. Pal is a Maker (someone who can instinctively repurpose ancient technology) who goes on a quest to become a Champion, someone who defends human civilization – known as Here – from said incursions from Not-Here. Drake writes with an easy confidence, but is perhaps a little too easy and over-confident with this novel: all the myriad elements of The Spark, from worldbuilding to character and plot development to action and dialogue are shrug-worthy at best, the overall result disappointingly mediocre. I expected a lot more from an old pro like Drake.

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