Capsule Reviews – February 2018

babylon's ashesBabylon’s Ashes (The Expanse Book 6), James S.A. Corey (Orbit, December 2016) 7.6 (out of 10)
Borne, Jeff Vandermeer (MCD, April 2017) 7.3
The Prey of Gods, Nicky Drayden (Harper Voyager, June 2017) 6.6
Into the Drowning Deep, Mira Grant (Orbit, November 2017) 8.0

In Babylon’s Ashes, no fewer than 18 POV characters are given one or more chapters, from series mainstays (Bobbie, Avasarala, Fred Johnson) to one-off heroes from the previous novels to villains to characters that hung around the periphery of the series to all-new characters. Differing perspectives are central to the whole tapestry of The Expanse, but while it’s nice to catch up with Prax and Anna and get a closer look at some of the series’ tertiary characters, a huge chunk of the book is eaten up by jumping around from character to character and just relaying their experiences or getting their perspective on events rather than moving forward with any sort of story.
Appropriate attention is paid to the aftermath of the events of Nemesis Games, especially the personal toll it exacts on everyone – Belter, Inner, Free Navy alike. The novel succeeds in this regard, often brilliantly, but it can also be exhausting. By the time the action and tension pick up and some semblance of a plot arrives beyond the OPA and the Inner planet authorities fishing around for the right response to the threat the Free Navy poses, we are nearly two-thirds of a patience-straining way through the novel’s length. That patience is rewarded – the climactic “desperate wing-and-a-prayer gambit” that has become a staple of the series is one of the most nerve-wracking and nail-biting that the authors Corey have devised. At this point in the series, I could read about these people doing their laundry for two hours without losing interest, so any complaints are qualified by the goodwill the series has engendered. Babylon’s Ashes is my least favorite Expanse novel, yet still essential.

borneThe dystopian reality of Jeff Vandermeer’s Borne is occupied by an enraged, giant flying bear named Mord that hunts and slaughters feral, sociopathic children in a post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. Imagine what it would take under those circumstances to come across something truly bewildering. When Rachel, the novel’s protagonist and narrator, discovers the being she names Borne while salvaging through the forest of fur on Mord’s sleeping body, she is unsure if it is a plant or animal or anything valuable at all. She just knows she wants to possess it, if for no other reason than it looks interesting, and is there for the taking.
Shortly after Rachel takes Borne home, he begins to grow and change, learn language, form emotional attachments. As if only to manifest Rachel’s curiosity, he grows far too quickly from infant to child to adolescent to young adult, constantly questioning his own nature and that of the world he was born into, frustrated by the inadequacy of language and reason to define him. If Mord – initially created by “the company” as a sort of guard dog to protect their interests – is a signifier for the absurd excesses of late capitalism, then the existence of Borne is its multiplicity of meanings. For Rachel, Borne is the embodiment of her anxieties about motherhood in an inhospitable, uncivilized world. For Rachel’s partner Wick, Borne is yet another dangerous tool created by the company that threatens the fragile ecology that barely sustains their lives. For Mord, Borne’s just another living creature he wants to rip to shreds.
My admiration for Vandermeer’s writing has never translated to emotional investment in his stories. His prose is as sharp and lucid and erudite as any of the celebrated literary authors of our time, smelted in a cauldron of genre writing’s more perverse tendencies. But the dream-like intensity of his language can also have a distancing effect. Borne is a compelling figure in an expressively nonsensical circus of a world, making it even more confounding that I had little purchase in the success of his journey, or of Rachel’s. Vandermeer’s imagination and artistry are the selling points of Borne, and are just enough to make it a novel worth reading and discussing.

prey of godsNicky Drayden’s debut novel The Prey of Gods is an exciting and adventurous book with a highly original setting, and a very singular hybrid of urban fantasy and sci-fi tropes. The novel is set in a future South Africa where advanced technology and economic opportunity are improving the lives of its citizens across racial and class lines. But ancient gods and demigods walk among the population in secret, and one in particular feels the need to assert her will on the population. A virus ostensibly engineered to cull a local infestation of antelopes called dik-diks, and a new hallucinogen called Godsend are the vehicles she plans to use, but a handful of pesky humans and a fledgling demigoddess have the ability to disrupt her plans.
But things get frustrating about halfway through when it becomes clear that the author has chosen to sideline, and in some cases, ignore altogether, several of the more intriguing (and disturbing) developments in the first third of the book. Some of these choices are utterly confounding – and at least one of them unforgiveable – and does disservice to the fascinating characters and world she created. It’s an imaginative novel, and worth reading for its unique world-building, even if it lacks cohesion in the execution of its various story threads.

drowning deepThe Atargatis was carrying a film crew that set out to make a mockumentary about the “truth” behind the mermaid myth. But the ship was lost at sea, and the surviving footage went viral – footage that showed vicious man-eating mer-monsters devouring everyone on board. Seven years later, the television network responsible for that ill-fated voyage sends a new crew of sailors, scientists and hunters out to the middle of the ocean to prove the footage was not a hoax.
Into the Drowning Deep is exactly the kind of devilish monster mash we want from Mira Grant, the epic horror writing alter-ego of urban fantasist Seanan McGuire. The first novel to be written under the Grant moniker, 2010’s Newsflesh series starter Feed, was terrific, but I have not been a big fan since. The Newsflesh sequels and 2013’s Parasite (the start of a trilogy that I could not finish) were bloated and rambling and I was close to giving up on her books altogether, until a Goodreads friend insisted I give this novel a whirl. I’m glad I did. Into the Drowning Deep is everything McGuire does well – a high-concept setup, an interesting and diverse cast of characters, twisted humor, and goosebump inducing chills. And mermaids snacking on human entrails. What more could you ask for?


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