Monday, December 29, 2014

Red Rising by Pierce Brown

Of late, only a few books tend to leave me disturbed. Gets me thinking beyond the premise and execution of a story well done. I remember Lord of the Flies did that for me – but I was much younger then. Hardly second year of college. And now Pierce Brown – an author possibly around the same age as me – goes on to write a crackerjack of a debut, Red Rising and charms the hell out of an audience jaded with the dystopian genre. Including me. I admit, the hype engine and the prepublication heaps of praise lauded onto the young author kept me away from this book. But after having blown through this stellar fusion of ‘Lord of the Flies’ meets ‘Enders Game’ featuring one of the most cold-hearted yet remarkably endearing 16-year old hero, I must say – everything is justified. And the debut deserves more.

Red Rising features Darrow – a gifted 16-year old miner deep in the bowels of a terraformed Mars – mining the underground caves for elements to help complete the “Terraforming” – and thus allowing humanity to come live on Mars. Touted to be Humanity’s last hope, Darrow is a Red. The lowest clan in the societal strata on Mars, separated by colors. However, Darrow is a talented and highly ambitious ‘HellDiver’ whose hot-headedness is only rivalled by the calm and practical nature of his young wife, Eo. It’s an almost idyllic existence – ignorance is bliss – till the day Eo, his gentle wife commits an act of treason. Of singing the “banned” song, urging Darrow and the reds to live for more and not just themselves. Eo is hanged, leaving Darrow heartbroken. And with nothing more to live for.

From here the narrative spurts ahead on jet-fuel. Darrow – who should ideally be dead – by hanging, is rescued by a rebel group called the Sons of Ares, led by an enigmatic Red who calls himself Dancer. Dancer gives Darrow his raison d’etre: Vengeance. Freedom. Of all things dreamed by Eo, who is now a Martyr and a symbol of hope for the entire population of Reds living underground. For above-ground, Dancer brings Darrow out to see the truth for himself. That Mars has already been terra-formed and the humanity has been living here for centuries. And all the messaging Darrow has been shown since he was young – was an elaborately spun ‘Golden’ lie.

Darrow agrees to Dancer’s plan of infiltrating the topmost echelon of the society – The brutal ruthless Golds who rule the world. Including a personal wish to avenge himself on the ArchGovernor who had come to witness Eo and his hanging. A few short chapters later – where Darrow undergoes both physical and behavioural transformation to emerge as one of the flawlessly perfect Gold – with fake identity papers, the plot just rockets forward. Darrow’s enrolment into the “Academy” – training for war-fare and survival – to be apprenticed to one of the higher houses and perhaps one day, command an imperial fleet – is a rousing rollicking tale of war-room simulation like none other that I’ve read. It is compelling stuff, addictive and at the same time, disturbingly violent.

Pierce Brown writes so engagingly well that as a reader you don’t realize the phenomenal world he is building around you. You are effortlessly sucked into the machinations of this pseudo-society with its myriad hierarchies, loyalties to different houses, nuanced differences in the language of a High Gold versus low Red, the stark differences between duties across levels of the society ( Golds are born to rule, Greens are tech-savvy, Pinks are for pleasuring, Whites are the accountants, Obsidians are the muscle-beasts….this fascinating list keeps going on!) – the grim vast chasms between the Haves and Have-nots of a society are brought to fore.

The pacing of course is gorydamn frenetic and the best parts are towards the second half of the book where Darrow – has to fight for survival and simultaneously prove his leadership skills…as well as stay alive in the game where more than just his own ‘friends’ have an agenda to kill him off. The darkness trapped within one’s mind is scary as Darrow realizes, fighting not to succumb to the machinations of an alien Gold Society. Where there is no room for kindness. Where the motto is to cheat or be cheated.

In terms of characterization, Brown gives us a 16-year old much more complex than Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games. Darrow is a confused youngster who grows up too fast. A broken youngster who had to pull down his own wife’s legs to break her neck and kill her while being hung – Darrow’s transformation into a Gold – brutal, cold and calculating animal – even as his conscience tries keep the larger goal clear in his mind – is astonishingly well-portrayed. The honest and brutally frank first person narrative comes across as fresh and believable. There are myriad other characters whom you will grow to love within this book as well – the beautiful Mustang with trust issues, the tiny cunning wolfish Sevro, the beastie Pax and many more.

You would think everything is hunky-dory with such a mind-blowingly well-written debut but no. Initial parts of the book is slow going. Heaps of info-dumps about HellDiving and life in the subterranean caves of Mars. I wouldn’t care less. My other grouch of course was that Darrow is such a superman. When it comes to feats of strength or speed, he is a monster. He never has a real issue adapting to be a super Gold. And so with high intelligence – like for instance, without formal training in mathematics, Darrow capably solves puzzles that - hold your breath – adapts itself to be more complex as levels rise. That’s a hoot, isn’t it? And the third I’m thinking would be the levels of unbelievable violence for a YA-crowd. The fights are more ‘Spartacus’ than ‘Hunger-Games’. Splashed with gore and blood. And thus perhaps a tad bit disturbing.

But all things said, Red Rising is a terrific debut. A compelling addictive genre-mash up with bloodydamn spectacular plotting and frenzied pacing filled with well realized characters – especially an unforgettable hero vying for revenge, rebellion and redemption - this book clearly should be a must read for everybody. Rising above age, gender and genre. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stormdancer (Lotus War # 1) by Jay Kristoff

A richly woven tapestry of intoxicating Japanese Mythological elements (Iron Samurai with Chain-saw Katana? Golly yes! Thunder-Tigers? Never heard of those, but give me some more please!!) and elaborate Steampunk fantasy; featuring a precocious 16-year old coming into her own – Jay Kristoff's explosive much-talked about debut Stormdancer was well on its way to be a runaway success even before the book launched. The hype and explosive premise surrounding the book was higher than the lethal volcanic fumes from Mount Doom of Mordor.

So imagine war and politics, love and magic colliding against a bewitchingly exotic backdrop of Japanese steam-punk where loyalties shift with the direction of the ever-howling winds and the reddish bloody skies are forever wreathed in clouds of betrayal. Stormdancer goes a step further than all of this. Love it or hate it, this book is in-your-face – World-building at a scale hitherto un-imagined. It’s perhaps YA – in its treatment of the heroine but the themes that run underneath of environmental decline, tyranny and even perhaps a nod to the caste systems ( Clans! The people are either part of the four clans of Tiger, Dragon, Phoenix and Fox or the lowest of the society being clan-less) are adult and topical. The pacing is like a see-saw and goes off-kilter at times with Jay getting into detailed flowing expositions about the “sweaty bodies draped in silk” or “paddy fields shrouded by choking scarlett pollen” - but ultimately, what matters is his execution of this premise. Personally I loved the sheer audacity of such an attempt at taking Steampunk outside of Victorian London into the choking, dying streets of a Japanese-inspired world. It takes talent and a lot of cojones to do it and do it aesthetically right.
“The lotus must bloom”. And how.

So Stormdancer features some of the most inventive worldbuilding elements I’ve ever read about– Imagine a Japan on the brink of environmental decline, running on steam and gear-clogs and ruled by a megalomaniacal demented Shogun. The world of Shima where the story takes place is an accursed place – on the brink of death and decline. (“Did you know that skies used to be blue once, Yamagata-san? Brilliant blue like a gaijin’s eyes. And now? Red as your lotus. Red as blood.”)

The people or elements that populate this strange world are just as twisted and delicious. Take for example, the fearsome Oni. Onis are nightmarish demons armed with studded-war clubs – last heard about in your grandmother’s tales – but here terrifyingly real – as real as the azalea petals and snow-flakes that you imagine Japan for. Take the Iron Samurai with their chainsaw Katanas – loyal to a fault and bound by this bushido code to the demented Emperor. Then there are these Guild artificers with their exoskeletons and 'mechabacus' that enables them to do engineering and data-transmission – who actually run the whole capital. And are the chief architects of the environmental decline. Due to a bio-fuel – called Chi - generated from the seeds of the lotus bloom that powers the army, the sky-ships and the motor-rickshaws . The soil of Shima is rendered sterile – the only crop being cultivated is the red lotus - groomed for the purpose of extracting fuel. The air is foul with the exhaust that causes blacklung and eventual death; the skies are blood-red with fumes of chi and industrial wastes. It’s altogether a slow death-trap – and on top of that, the morbid citizens fear for their lives - because of the fanatic priests ( called “purifiers”) who string up and burn innocents by the dozens on a whim. Basis their beliefs – a twisted vile interpretation of the Book of Ten Thousands (perhaps their Bible?)
You get the idea. The book is chocked up full with such strange wonderful beings and Jay Kristoff certainly doesn’t shy away from letting his imagination take wings. The world history and mythology is packed in through myriad stories and certainly completes this neat package – a mesmerizing account of Gods and their follies and their children – I am thinking the story of Mother Dark isn’t over yet – and we will see the myths and the overall plot only becoming murkier; All for the better I say.

In the midst of all the hullaboo surrounding the quasi-Japanese dystopian settings, I almost forgot about the story. Yes there is a good story buried in amongst all this. A coming-of-age story of a sixteen-year old girl destined to take on the might of an empire. It’s a tale we’ve heard a thousand times before – but Jay spins the tale capably well. Couched in exotic settings and draped in vivid vibrant descriptions that brings alive this world – Yokiko must battle her own personal demons on one hand – a substance-addicted father, mysterious circumstances of her mother’s disappearance, the angst and raging hormones of teenage, broken hearts and betrayals from best friends – and the might of the Iron-Samurai. Taking on the Shogun of Shima himself. Not to mention the impossibility of the challenge. Jay certainly doesn’t believe in doing things by half and into this mad chaotic mix, he drops in a twisted romantic threesome. Admittedly, it’s a little too much to handle. The lid of the blender comes flying off towards the mad climax – where battles and madness and betrayals break loose and crowd the pages. 

So I’ve already crooned about the gooey stuff I LOVED about this book. The fantastic premise held for as long as Jay didn’t go about molly-coddling his heroine. But as soon as the hormones kick in – ( and trust me – it does and it does so at inopportune moments – like in the middle of a fight with an Oni – with the war-club scything towards her head, Yokiko starts wet-dreaming about a certain boy with sea-green eyes. FTW!!) things start unraveling.

Much has been spoken about the cultural mis-appropriation. I don’t care much on that front – as I’m no expert on the afore-said culture. But as I reader I cared that things didn’t jar too much. Especially going in for an aesthetic amalgamation of two disparate genres. But I sure got irritated with Jay’s pacing. Especially the earlier portions of the novel where he goes to unnecessary lengths to establish Shima’s environmental decline. His literary skills are astounding and while it did one good to actually read about the vivid prison-city of Kigen and the myriad sweaty populace residing within, it got tiresome as he heaped tons of info and kept on doing so. The issues are resolved way too fast for my liking. Like for example, the bond between Yokiko and the fearsome Arashorita was established way too fast. Yokiko being the destined child – quickly assuming the weight of the whole rebellion on her tiny shoulders – even as the fates of her father and his friends is hanging in the air – was again done without much trouble. It was like life for Yukiko is a cake-walk. After all, with a Thunder-Tiger for a best friend/brother – there is nothing that can stand in their way.

Anyways – these minor quibbles aside, Stormdancer, part one of the Lotus War is a fantastically gripping novel that will blow you away with its sheer audacity to mesh together Japanese mythology and Steampunk fantasy. An attempt that has won Jay hearts and fans all over the world and also distanced the elitist critics and culture-lovers in equal measure. So where do I fall among these two factions?
I remain a book-lover and as a rabid fan of fantasy fiction, this book is a definite treat. I am strapped in for the rest of the ride. For the future of Shima and Yokiko. Let the Lotus fuckin’ explode.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Daughter of the Swords (Fated Blades # 1) by Steve Bein.

If I actually pause and look over the past few books that I’ve been gung-ho about and have been devouring heartily, a common theme emerges:  JAPAN
Yamada Monogatari was an indie piece based on Medieval Japan and Oni and rice-paper ghosts. Was more of a slow-burn – with a Japanese ronin Sherlock Holmes for a hero and the story being a kind of a delicious mystery drawing you in to a power struggle for the throne.  And then I got started on this - Daughter of the Sword by Steve Bein - A noteworthy debut that came in 2012 –And is such an exquisitely written urban fantasy overlaid with detailed Japanese history that it begs to be finished in one sitting.
And currently am reading a steampunk fantasy heavily inspired by Japanese mythology – a story called Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff – the end parts of this trilogy (EndSinger) should be hitting the stores right around the corner.  Exciting stuff. Mindblowing worldbuilding skills ever.

So coming back to Daughter of the Sword – this is one heck of a solid debut and Steve Bein is definitely a powerhouse talent that I’m keeping my eyes open for. This book is primarily an urban thriller set in modern day Tokyo – but crisscrossed with some detailed Japanese historical fiction. I am not sure of the “fantasy” tag to this debut – but it’s a wildly exciting tale that sees police procedural mixed up with oriental sword-play. And I’m not the one complaining.

So the blurb actually doesn’t do justice to the layered story-telling. It primarily is the story of Mariko Oshiro – the only lady detective on the Tokyo Metropolitan Police Department. Now Steve could have played just this one card and made the story wildly exciting and interesting. But he chooses to infuse the story with historical layers – going back to the times even before the first Shogunate of Japan – then cutting back to 16th century and finally bridging the gaps in 1945, the end of second world war. The manner in which these stories are linked together is fascinating.

So Mariko – struggling against the stereotypes and chauvinism – is vying to get into the more exciting narcotics investigation department. But the fact that she is female and has a sister – struggling with her addiction to drugs – makes things doubly difficult. These struggles mired in a long rich historical context of Japan actually makes Mariko’s story more appealing – and elicits the reader’s empathy effortlessly. We’ve seen this. Glass ceiling. Gender bias. But Mariko rises up through all this.

Being assigned to a seemingly innocuous case of attempted burglary for an antique sword seemed like the end of the road for ambitious Mariko. But soon the layers peel off. Professor Yasuo Yamada – who owns the artifact – the antique sword – seems like the perfect Master Shifu urging Mariko to find her inner peace. As well as teaching her the art of sword-fighting simultaneously filling her in on the fascinating history of this sword – entwined with two others. The famed swords are the only ones to be made by a genius swordsmith named Inazuma to have survived and shaped history.

Mariko gets drawn into the case – even as a new yakuzai in town seems hell bent on changing the rules of drug-trafficking in the city. The story gets twisty and delightful with the author going back in time to establish the “fated” powers of the famed swords – each era detailing how the swords rewrite the fates of the sword-wielders and those around them. The mention of magic is subtle and not over-stated but remains an intriguing presence throughout the story.

Mariko is a fascinating female lead to get behind of. Easy to like, righteous to a fault and bogged down by her own personal demons, she is definitely the central tour-de-force in terms of characters. The wise sage/grasshopper sensei – Master Shifu aka Professor Yamada is someone we’ve probably seen in different avatars but is a critical bridge to different parts of the story. The rest of the characters as well – each era demanding a new “hero” and plotline – are also very well-drawn out and confirm well to the overall plot of the “fated” blades.

What makes this debut eminently readable is actually the detailed research of Japanese culture that shines through Steve’s nuanced writing.  I loved the way he delves into the cultural minutiae of Japan across different eras – making it real and retaining all of the complexities without losing the reader.
Overall, this is a fantastic debut and a series in which I definitely will pick up the rest of the books. Mariko definitely deserves more stories set in this world and am hoping Steve’s research brings in more aspects of the Japanese culture to rest of the world. More power to you!

Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel - A phenomenal post-apocalyptic novel like none other.

This book came highly recommended bundled with the likes of California by Edan Lepucki among others. A genre of post-apocalyptic fiction that is unabashedly realistic and still manages to be poignant, lyrical and stunningly original.

I concur. Reading the book was like floating along a gentle river; a meandering journey that you know not the destination of and still manages to be pleasant. Retaining that sense of wonder, déjà vu and puzzlement. All of which characterizes quintessential human life. It is an exploration of how fragile, ephemeral and yet connected are human lives. In more ways than one, it’s a brilliant parable detailing the life and times of people in the backdrop of a deadly apocalyptic virus breakout in the world. Giving us insights unto the fleeting sense of fame and the endurance of art. Albeit graphic art – a comic book that becomes a symbol of hope for a distraught human company in such times fraught with unexpected dangers.

Pop culture references surfeit the book’s various chapters – be it The Passage or the quote from Star Trek, Emily has managed to tweak these into her narrative masterfully integrating it without much of a mess. It’s effective. And as a device, a post-apocalyptic world is a brilliant backdrop for exploring the inter-connected lives of all the characters in this book. It was like watching a master weaver at work. The flourish and make-believe of genius is absent. And yet never does the lilting prose feel plodding. The plot is meandering yes. And I curse myself for having stopped the book in the middle – to be swayed by other fast-moving narratives. But coming back to read Station Eleven was like coming back to meet an old friend. A real friend – a silent effortless camaraderie that lets you have that companionable silence on the porch at the fag end of a day. Picking up conversations where we last left off years back.

So the book is full of symbols. That resurface in subtle and cunning ways – like the title, Station Eleven is actually a graphic novel about a genius scientist stuck in space in a different planet ( that is called Station Eleven by the way) philosophizing about life and the struggles that define it. Much like the restless mindset of the author, Miranda– first wife to Arthur, a very famous actor. But unlike Arthur who is hungry for more, Miranda – keeps her art to herself. Sometimes there is no greater joy than that of simply creating. And funnily after the Georgia Flu wipes out 99.9% of world population, her work survives and becomes a symbol of hope for a group of survivors.

Flitting across timelines, Emily slowly introduces all the characters in this story. Pre-apocalypse, the narrative balances around Actor Arthur and his wives – chiefly Miranda, his best friend Clark and a paparrazi-turned-medico Jeevan. The post-apocalypse is mainly about Kirsten, a girl whom we first see in the very first act of the book – on stage when Arthur dies of a heart-attack while enacting King Lear of Shakespeare – who grows up in the post-apocalyptic world to be a part of the “Travelling Symphony group” that specializes in doing Shakespearean productions. It’s a full circle – from Shakespeare’s King Lear in a pre-pandemic world to performing Shakespeare in a bleak sparse world – bringing back the focus on art, music and theatre. And thus, the words of Star Trek immortalized as tattoos on the hands of survivors, “Survival is Insufficient.”

It’s a beautiful mix of contradictions. Who would want to listen to a travelling group of musicians in a world fraught with dangers after the flu-breakout killed pretty much everyone around? This strangeness simply becomes norm the way Emily presents her characters and novels – and as I said before, the best part of the book was watching the individual threads of sparse colors be woven together to form a masterful brilliant tapestry of colors and designs hitherto unimagined. Emily uses different devices like radio clippings, newspaper interviews to round off the POVs and bring in depth and perspective to the narrative. Seemingly at random but as the plot unfolds it all makes sense.

It is in parts dark and bittersweet but Station Eleven is ultimately a richly satisfying  novel that stands towering above the glut of post-apocalyptic fiction today purely because of its simplicity. An ethereal untouchable quality to the writing that transcends the themes of just survival and brings on more. Radiant, original and bewitchingly beautiful, this is by far one of the phenomenal books of 2014.