Paper Plane Reviews

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Category: Science Fiction Page 1 of 4

The Pre-Programming by B.L.A. & G.B. Gabbler

After the strangeness of The Automation, I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect beyond more screwed-up pseudo-family drama and weirdly intriguing metafiction. I figured that there might be some conclusion in sight with this volume too. Spoiler warnings for The Automation below.

The Pre-Programming follows on directly from The Automation, after Odissa revealed her deeper sordid connection with the last book’s mysterious villain, Leeland. And as people start to die, it starts becoming more apparent that Odissa is much more important to the plot than any of the cast had originally suspected. In addition, B.L.A. starts hinting at how they may have originally been Bulfinch, Odissa’s cat, with G.B. Gabbler about as incredulous about that notion as you would expect.
Honestly, this didn’t go how I expected at all, and most of the stuff that I want to talk about is spoilers. I will start off with some more generic stuff and then have a section with spoilers.
So I liked some of the character development that takes place in The Pre-Programming, as there’s a section dedicated to the Masters acting in ways that are opposite to their normal behaviour, and their various reactions and attempts to reconcile that with what they consider their true self to be. In some cases they manage the task, but in others they dramatically fail and have to face their own guilt and judgement. The development of the Odissa/Dorian relationship is interesting, but ultimately I don’t see a great deal of chemistry between them. They say that they love each other, but they only seem to alternate between bitching and sniping at one another, and Odissa coddling Dorian like he’s a small child with serious separation issues. I realise that the relationship is most likely not meant to be healthy, but there isn’t much in the way of normal behaviour that would explain why they like each other’s company enough to put up with the shit they put each other through.
So, now to the spoiler stuff. If you’re still intending to read The Pre-Programming, then skip to the final summary.
I’ve never read a book before that replaces a large chunk of the cast right before the end, and I don’t know how I feel about it. So by the end, all the Masters are dead by their own hand or by Odissa’s, including Odissa herself. And the Automata have sentience that is built from the souls of their past Masters, in preparation for the next stage of the series. It’s a pretty major change considering that before this point the Automata were less characters in and of themselves and more extensions of the Masters’ personalities, so what has essentially happened is a total cast kill. I’ve only ever seen that in stand-alone novels, understandably right at the end. Never in the middle of an in-progress series. There’s a part of my brain that is wondering why you would start the series where they did, rather than starting with whatever weird D&D game the gods will possibly be playing and providing The Automation and The Pre-Programming as backstory where necessary. But at the same time, I’m also kind of marvelling at the sheer brass balls that you’d need to pull off a left-turn quite that sudden and brazen. So I think I’m still interested, in spite of the critic part of my brain still trying to rationalise the complete cast replacement two thirds in.

On the one hand The Pre-Programming continues to do what it did well in The Automation, which boils down to a lot of really unhealthy relationships and interesting contemplation of the self. On the other hand, there is probably the most drastic left-turn that I have ever seen a series take, and I still don’t know quite what to make of it. I will probably keep an eye out for whatever comes next, just to figure out if that twist was worth it. 4/5

Next review: White Night by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Automation by B.L.A. & G.B. Gabbler

The Automation and its sequel The Pre-Programming were sent my way by the publisher S.O.B. Publishing, to try and drum up a bit of publicity for the second book in the series. Given the interesting premise and the unusual mythpunk genre, I was more than happy to oblige.

The Automation follows Odys Odelyn, a reclusive young man whose only real company is his twin sister Odissa. One day his life as he knows it is shattered after a stranger commits suicide in front of him, bequeathing Odys a tarnished penny as his last act. Odys soon finds that the penny is actually an immortal called an Automaton that runs off of a human host’s soul, and is quickly embroiled in the complex conflicts of other Automata and their masters. Throughout the book, the Narrator (B.L.A.) is simultaneously attempting to convince the reader of the story’s truth and embellish it to fit within the Epic genre, while their Editor (G.B. Gabbler) can only try and curb their wilder narrative flares.
I don’t know quite how to feel about The Automation, because while there is a big part of me that was thoroughly entertained by reading it, there was also a large part of me that was thoroughly irritated by it. And I can’t really untangle the two from each other. For example, let me talk about the single worst character in the book, Mecca. He’s one of the other masters introduced in the narrative, stuck in childhood for at least the next century or so, speaks about himself in the third person, and is a thoroughly nauseating blend of childish and perverted. Every time he turned up in the narrative, I wanted someone to punt the little fucker into traffic. But during his original introduction, there was a little aside that has confused the matter somewhat for me, in which the Editor states that they too hate Mecca and only allowed him to stay in the narrative because he plays an important role in the second book. On the one hand, I kind of feel vindicated, like my rush of ill feeling towards the character is justified and shared by others. On the other hand, the writer and reviewer in me is stuck asking “Well, if he’s that important to the story, why make him so intolerably fucking aggravating?”. This keeps happening throughout the narrative, and I still haven’t made up my mind which emotion should be the prevailing one.
There are two other things that I would mention that people may want to consider before picking up The Automation. The first is that it ends on a cliffhanger, one that you are literally taunted with at the end of the book, so those looking for a one-and-done sort of book should look elsewhere. Second is that the plot, while engaging, is mostly people talking. It’s especially odd considering that the narrative keeps making reference to Greek and Roman epics, in particular those of Homer, which I seem to remember being just a smidgen more violent. Not necessarily a bad thing, but after a pretty dramatic beginning, it does slow a fair bit.

The Automation is a book that entertains and vexes me in near equal measure. On balance, I think I like it enough to look into its sequel, but I would advise that this is for readers who are looking for a bit of a challenge and something a bit different. 4/5

Next review: The Pre-Programming by B.L.A. & G.B. Gabbler

Signing off,
Nisa.

Battle Spire by Michael R. Miller

I’ll admit that I was rather looking forward to Battle Spire, given that the blurb was seriously reminding me of Sword Art Online, an anime series that my partner and I have always thoroughly enjoyed watching together. So a book that looked to be a mix of Sword Art Online and Die Hard was definitely going to catch my interest, especially if I could then recommend it to my partner, who is a lot more particular about their reading tastes than I am.

Battle Spire follows a college student, Jack Kross, who is logging back into a VRMMO after a year’s abstinence from gaming. Aiming to legitimise his hobby by making money as a gold farmer, he picks the Scavenger class, which is really not intended to be used in combat, but will increase the number of interesting and expensive things that he can sell to other players and NPCs. Unfortunately for him, just as he’s finished the starter quest he finds that a group of hostile players have taken over the server and prevented anyone logging out. To make matters worse, if he’s killed in-game the VR headset will either give him severe brain damage or kill him. Faced with the prospect of either slowly dehydrating and eventually suffering organ failure in his hotel room or being killed by hostile players, Jack finds himself teaming up with the game’s AI to try and take down the players holding the server hostage.
The comparison to Die Hard was a particularly apt one, considering that it’s one person trapped in a tower taking out opponents through traps and subterfuge. And it was a thoroughly enjoyable read because of it. Given that he is a very low level, he can’t engage in any direct combat, so he has to come up with a lot of out-of-the-box, game-breaking strategies to beat all of the high-level players pitted against him. I think the primary strength that makes all of the game-breaking stuff work is the depth with which the game world is described. Everything comes into play, from character stats to how the server deals with NPC respawn rate to NPC behaviours, and that level of detail really pays off. I will say that the level of detail was, at least at first, kind of disconcerting. The thing that comes to mind is when Jack is first creating his character. At this point, he has already explained to the reader what character and class he will be rolling up, so I thought that the character creation process would be more or less glossed over. Instead, all the different options that the game made available at each stage are detailed for the reader to look over, and damn if they don’t genuinely sound like something you’d get in World of Warcraft or Guild Wars. There was a part of me that worried that this might get a bit overbearing, because that level of detail is present throughout the book, as it appears with every level-up and change of weapon. I personally found that it helped with immersion, but I could possibly see people who were hoping for something a bit lighter on background flavour.
In terms of characters, the main two that the reader gets are pretty good. There’s Jack, also known as Zoran, a hardcore gamer who loves the rush that he gets from an MMO, but isn’t sure that it’s healthy for him in the long run. He kind of starts out as the kind of player that I avoid in MMOs, but has a decent character arc that addresses those sorts of issues. Then there’s the game’s controlling AI, dubbed Ellie by Jack for lack of a better name. She’s probably the more interesting of the two, alternating between emotionless robot, concerned server mum and shifty, untrustworthy frenemy. I loved the interaction between the two of them, and how both keep surprising each other.

I was a bit predisposed to like Battle Spire, since it promised a lot of things that I loved about Sword Art Online. While the stakes don’t necessarily feel as high in Battle Spire, I was still thoroughly gripped and entertained by the story. The game world that has been created is interesting and definitely somewhere that I would like to see explored further. The features that define it as a video game are used really cleverly, much more than I’d expected. And lastly, the characters are solid and reasonably likeable. Overall, a thoroughly entertaining read. 4.5/5

Next review: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas de Quincey

Signing off,
Nisa.

Silent City by G. R. Matthews

My thirst for new books is never-ending and probably ill-advised at this point, but it has prompted me to join a group called TBRindr, which matches reviewers with indie authors who are in need of reviews. And I was soon to get my first request, from an author by the name of G. R. Matthews. He has sent me two books to look at, the first of which is Silent City.

Silent City follows Corin Hayes, a down-and-out ex-soldier whose only remaining comfort is to be found at the bottom of a bottle. Following the murder of his daughter and a subsequent industrial accident that he was responsible for, he has been living paycheck to paycheck. One day his regular drinking spot is intruded on by Devra, a representative of the corporation running the underwater city that he lives in with a tempting offer: a regular job that makes use of the valuable skills that he came out of the military with. But on his first job with them, he soon finds things going horribly wrong.
Sometimes you hear horror stories about books that have been independently published, particularly with regards to lack of quality. So I’m quite glad that my first review for TBRindr has been such a solid entry. I’m going to start with something that I don’t usually focus on first: the worldbuilding. For me, Silent City hits pretty much the perfect note when it comes to developing his world and balancing it against the characters and plot. My main complaint with a lot of books that have very strong worldbuilding is that the characters and plot can seem underdeveloped or boring in comparison, which is rarely what you want to read. With Silent City, there weren’t the sort of long and complex information dumps that make me want to throw a book across the room. Additionally, it was a setting that I haven’t seen explored much, which makes me intrigued to see more of it. A severely diminished humanity that must hide in pressurised domes beneath the sea, with no hope of returning to a surface that has been poisoned beyond human intervention? I am so there, thalassophobia be damned.
That leaves the plot and characters. The plot is going to be rather difficult to discuss without quickly getting into spoiler territory. I will say that, on the whole, I enjoyed it and found it quite tense in places. I would have liked a few answers at the end, but as this is the first in a series I think I can forgive a bit of mystery being set up.
Which leaves characters yet to tackle. Silent City is a first-person narrative, and it definitely falls prey to one of the primary problems with this particular point of view: beyond the main character, Corin, the characters aren’t really fleshed out all that much, and what we do get is coloured by Corin’s personal biases. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it would be nice to get a better idea of who some of the other characters in this interesting world are before they get their lungs crushed by massive water pressure. As for Corin himself, he is the sort of character that wouldn’t look out of place if he were transplanted into 1930s America or other setting suited to the Noir genre. He’s hard-drinking, dour and down on his luck, but stubborn and tough enough to fight his way through the sticky situation that he manages to find himself in. Not the most original of characters perhaps, but he’s well-written and has a potential soft centre that could be entertaining to uncover.

Silent City is a thoroughly enjoyable book, and is definitely worth a look. The characterisation is a bit thin at the moment, and the plot seems to largely be set-up for later in the series, but for a first book in a series I’m willing to forgive a bit of mystery. Any flaws that the book may have are balanced out by some truly stellar worldbuilding, which combines all the griminess of cyberpunk with the majesty and terror of the sea. I’d be more than happy to continue the series. 4/5

Next review: Pirates! by Celia Rees

Signing off,
Nisa.

On a Pale Horse by Piers Anthony

Piers Anthony is one of those genre writers that I had heard of when getting into Fantasy and Science-Fiction, but I hadn’t really had the chance or inclination to pick up any of his series, as much because it’s difficult to know where to start with such a prolific author. But as On a Pale Horse appeared in, you guessed it, a bundle that I had picked up, it seemed the perfect place to start. Besides, who doesn’t like a good Grim Reaper story?

On a Pale Horse follows Zane, a man who, after a spectacularly bad day topping off a life of guilt and failure, decides to kill himself. When he goes to pull the trigger, he is confronted by the Grim Reaper. In a moment of horrified panic and a sudden renewed desire to live, he turns the gun on Death, and kills him. Moments later, he meets the anthropomorphic manifestation of Fate and is told that he must take over the position of Grim Reaper, and gather the souls of those whose destination in the afterlife is uncertain. On top of trying to figure out his new powers and responsibilities on the job, he finds that his appointment may be tied into a vast conspiracy by Satan.
I love a good pantheon, and On a Pale Horse looks to be the start of a pretty good one. It was kind of an intriguing set-up, combining your traditional Abrahamaic God vs Satan narrative with five semi-immortal figures acting as manifestations of themes with particular importance in human society: Death, Time, Fate, War and Nature. As God and Satan are prohibited from interfering directly with life on Earth, the Incarnations are there to ensure that both of them stick to the rules of engagement. While the interactions between the Incarnations was somewhat limited, it was great to see the duplicity and scheming that was already present. The problem that I’ve seen with a lot of pantheons is that the deities within tend to fall into either good or evil camps and then their characters are more or less defined by their moral compass and not by their personal sphere of influence or any other personal nuance.
While on the subject of the world-building, the mortal world is also pretty nicely fleshed out. It tries to combine high magic and high science, which does work for the most part, although I personally preferred the fantasy aspects if only because it fit the theological theme more. There is only one part where the science-fiction stuff is particularly egregious towards the end of the book, but all things considered it isn’t too big an issue.
I already know that I have the second book in the series queued up to read further down the line, and I’m looking forward to revisiting the world. I would be remiss though if I didn’t mention an aspect of the writing that I found both distracting and uncomfortable. There was an awful lot of male gaze stuff, and it didn’t really seem necessary. Sure, you can say that a female character is pretty within her character description, that’s fine. The problem comes up when the narration regularly brings up female characters’ plentiful bosoms and shapely legs. Hell, there’s an entire section where the main character watches the magical equivalent of American Football with female teams. Sure it hits all the typical sports tropes, but adds comments about how the protective padding emphasises their feminine qualities, a section where a spell makes it look like a player is naked and some of the most stereotypical cat-fighting that I’ve seen in a long time. It’s positively masturbatory and could have been cut quite easily. Admittedly, Zane does conduct himself in a gentlemanly manner, but even that becomes irritating with his tendency to assume that “female = purity”. It’s a shame considering that the world and the plot are really engaging. While I’m content to continue the series, I am sorely hoping that this was more an issue in the choice of main character, rather than something that is an author trait. I could see it souring my experience of what looks to be an intriguing series.

The world and plot are well-fleshed out, with some really interesting social sparring between the immortal characters. I would have rated this higher, but my enjoyment was spoiled somewhat by the egregious and unnecessary focus on cringe-worthy male gaze sections. I can only hope that it doesn’t come up in the second book. 4/5

Next review: True Grit by Charles Portis

Signing off,
Nisa.

Found by Margaret Peterson Haddix

So Found is probably not a book that I would have picked up, had I found it outside of a book bundle. While I don’t have any problem reading books aimed at children, I find that my standards for them are tougher than they are for adult books. Maybe because I grew up with things like Pixar films that can be appreciated by all ages, but dumbed down children’s fiction does nothing for me. But in this case, the premise seemed interesting enough that I could take more of a chance.

Found follows Jonah Skidmore, an ordinary teenage boy who has never thought anything about his being adopted as a baby. It is only when he and his new friend Chip, who has only just discovered that he was adopted, start getting mysterious letters of warning that he wonders whether he should be concerned about who his birth parents were. When he digs into his origins though, he finds himself entangled in a mystery that involves the FBI, a vast smuggling operation and people who appear and disappear in seemingly impossible ways.
When Found started on a really intriguing scene, that of an aeroplane appearing out of thin air and containing 36 babies and no flight crew, I was really hopeful. It’s nothing if not an arresting image, so you can imagine what I hoped that it would turn into. As it turned out, I would be disappointed. Don’t get me wrong, the story itself was decent enough, but it just needed to be tighter, go through a few rewrites. As it was, Found was decent enough, but had a few things just annoying enough to ruin the expectations that I’d had for this.
First of all, the characters mostly ended up being generically teenager instead of especially interesting by themselves. They were all kind of dim, overly concerned with what is and is not “cool” for their age group, and seemed to have really spotty memories about a topic that they’ve been focusing on for several weeks by the end of the book. For instance, there’s a bit where they meet a woman who saw the plane that Jonah and Chip were on as babies, and she posits that there was time travel involved. Chip’s reaction to this is to mock her relentlessly for her crackpot theories, completely ignoring the fact that one of the documents he has in his possession at that very moment contains information that they had previously established would be impossible to have without something like, oh I don’t know, fucking TIME TRAVEL! Like, if you wanted to have him be that sceptical, don’t provide him with reason to believe the theories that he mocks. Additionally, it seems at odds with his willingness to believe another character’s assertion that she saw a ghost, just because she says so. I just need consistency, please.
Secondly, there seems to be this weirdly specific body language or voice tone going on throughout the book. I can appreciate communicating additional information or context with either body language or tone of voice, because that’s a thing that people do, obviously. But in Found this is made into so specific and exact a form of communication that it becomes really distracting.
Lastly, it just started to drag, with little of actual substance happening between Jonah and his family meeting the FBI to discuss his adoption, and the showdown in the latter third. It’s the three main characters investigating, poorly, and getting more and more panicky because of the vague and menacing dangers around them. It did pick up at the end, but by then my experience had been tainted by the slog of the beginning and middle thirds. And if I’m bored then I can’t imagine a child or young teenager will do much better.

Found ends on a cliff-hanger, but I don’t know if I’d deliberately go out of my way to continue reading the series. The characters are pretty much just generic young teens and haven’t got much interesting about each of them individually. The writing can be distracting at times, with the sort of annoying writing tics that draw you out of your immersion. And while it did pick up towards the end, the first two thirds seemed to drag interminably through a pretty shabby investigation. Not terrible, but not particularly great either. 3/5

Next review: Small Gods by Terry Pratchett

Signing off,
Nisa.

Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Finally, we come to Acceptance, the last part of the Southern Reach trilogy, and it has quite a lot to live up to and possibly explain. I was really looking forward to finding out how everything would be tied up, and tucked into this with cautious enthusiasm. Spoilers will follow for Annihilation and Authority.

Following the collapse of Southern Reach when the border of Area X suddenly expanded, Control and the clone of the biologist, answering only to Ghost Bird, travel to the as-yet-uncharted island. Together they hope to find answers about how to get back home and what happened to the original biologist. The narrative also flashes back to the perspectives of Saul Evans, the lighthouse keeper who will eventually become the Crawler, and the former director as she prepares herself for being part of the first and final twelfth expedition into Area X.
I had a quick look over the reviews for Acceptance before starting my writing again, and I have just one thing to say about the main criticism that I saw levelled at this last installment. To those who have read Acceptance and were disappointed that everything wasn’t explained in minute detail: were we reading the same series? I mentioned in my review of Authority that I didn’t have more of an idea what was happening, I had a firmer grip on how the world and the people in it worked, and I’m quite happy to say the same for Acceptance. And honestly, I’m okay with that as an ending. For me, the Southern Reach series was never about explaining Area X, it was about how humans fare when they inevitably try and make it into something tame and conquerable. A novel, at it’s best, is about documenting how people react to unusual, challenging settings or situations. And honestly, it would have been more disappointing if VanderMeer had just shoved in a load of last minute, bullshit answers just to placate readers who can’t handle a bit of uncertainty. The Southern Reach series has never been super-detailed science-fiction, so why anyone would think that it would suddenly turn into that in the final installment is beyond me. For me, it was always about the journey of the biologist/Ghost Bird and Control. It was about how they both adapt to their new situation in their own separate ways. And in that sense, Acceptance more than succeeded.

For those people looking for concrete answers, look elsewhere. That wasn’t the style of Annihilation or Authority, so to expect details at this stage is just baffling. The character arcs are the most important aspect of Acceptance by far, and they are handled perfectly. This conclusion is about as open-ended as you can get, but that is just fine with me. 5/5

Next review: The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie

Signing off,
Nisa.

Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Having finished Annihilation, I was really excited to see where the Southern Reach series would go. From what I could gather from the blurb, Authority would focus more on the actual facility that sent out the expeditions, as they try and wrap their heads around whatever is going on in Area X, which I thought had a lot of potential. As a warning, there will be spoilers for Annihilation in the following review, so if you’re still in the middle of it, I would advise skipping this until you’re finished.

Authority follows John “Control” Rodriguez, a secret service agent who has taken over as the new director at Southern Reach, following Annihilation‘s disastrous twelfth expedition. Three of the expedition members have returned home without triggering any alarms at the border of Area X, only the psychologist, now revealed to be the former director, still missing. Having been charged by his mysterious handler, known only as “the Voice”, to put Southern Reach back into some kind of order, Control must try and navigate deliberately obstructive staff who are certain that the former director will return, the unnerving and circuitous notes left behind by the former director, and the disturbing notion that his superiors are keeping secrets from him.
When I finish a book, what I usually do is write my review, submit it, and then take a look at other people’s reviews to see where we differ. As I wanted to organise my thoughts a little before discussing Authority, I looked at the reviews first. The number of one star reviews that I found in surprisingly quick succession gave me a bit of a shock. But taking a look at the content of those criticisms, I could see where they were all coming from, despite personally quite liking it. So, the main criticisms seemed to be with regards to the comparatively slow pace and more mundane focus on what is essentially office politics, especially after the weirdness that was Annihilation. They seem like decent enough points to discuss, and I can avoid the majority of spoilers. Looking at Authority having finished it, I can say that the slow pace and the focus on office politics, while admittedly frustrating at times, does seem to have its place in the grand scheme of the Southern Reach series. The pace and focus serve to develop what could be considered the status quo of two elements: Control, and the Southern Reach facility.
I’ll start with Southern Reach itself. While initially appearing rather normal for a facility dealing with Area X, the mundane routine of a 9-5 working week means that each day reveals layer after layer of weirdness and misdirection between all the different people working there. Control’s return to his rented home in the nearby town provides a much more straightforward example of normality, so you can really see how Area X is starting to bleed out and affect its surroundings. And once you get to the part of Authority where the plot goes from 0 to 60, it is way more of a shock to the system. Having created a pocket of comparative normality, the uninhibited weirdness of Area X that turns up in the final third is stark and feels so much more threatening for it.
Then there is Control. He decides at the beginning of his term as the director that he won’t let himself get emotionally involved in anything that he finds out, and that he will stay firmly in control of whatever he needs to do in order to clean up after his predecessor, meaning that he sets out with a hyper-vigilant mind-set. The set-backs that he encounters pretty much immediately, like the strange obsession that he has with interviewing the biologist and the deliberate withholding of information from both his employees and superiors, aren’t necessarily big when he is first confronted with them. But with his hyper-vigilance, he picks up on every little detail, both legitimate cause for concern and irrelevant tidbit, and soon everything is being seen as part of a mass of competing conspiracies, leading him on a downward spiral to anxiety and paranoia. I think you can probably guess what a mindset that defensive and fragile will do when confronted with anything from Area X, right?

If you’ve started reading Authority with the intent of getting concrete answers for questions you had from Annihilation, then you will be disappointed. It does give some more details about the Southern Reach facility though, so while I won’t admit to knowing much more than I did at the end of the last book, I think I have a firmer feel on how the world works. I have seen some criticism that Authority focuses too much on the office politics, but I think that the slow pace and (comparatively) mundane setting are very cleverly pulled off. The focus on seemingly unimportant details both develops how the normal world is affected by Area X even with containment, and allows Control to move from being stoic and hyper-vigilant to someone who is barely coping with his own anxiety and paranoia. You just have to be patient with it. 4.5/5

Next review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

Signing off,
Nisa.

Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer

I’ve been a bit naughty with regards to my reading list. So my husband has been telling me how good the Southern Reach series was since shortly after it came out, but with my reading list as over-full as it is, I couldn’t quite justify bringing the series forward. Cut to the New Year, and we found out that the series has been adapted into a film. My husband was utterly bewildered by this turn of events, and is determined to see it to find out just how they’ve gone about adapting what is apparently a very weird series. So now I have until late February to finish the series in time to see the movie adaptation.



Annihilation follows a nameless biologist as she enters a strange place known as Area X as part of a scientific expedition. Little is known about the area beyond that there was an apparent environmental disaster, despite the apparent lushness of the ecosystems there. The members of the all-female expedition have been given the seemingly simple task of charting the land and taking samples of anything unusual. But it soon starts falling apart, starting with the discovery of an unmapped tunnel right near their base camp.
Having just read Annihilation, I can kind of see why my husband was so confused about the trailer. While there is a lot that comes up that could be seen as scary, both with regards to the secrets that are revealed about the authorities behind the expeditions and the weird creatures that call Area X home, I think it’s the kind of scary that is very difficult to translate to film. It’s the kind of slow burn that most directors avoid, and it wasn’t in evidence in the trailer that I’ve seen.
As to the actual book itself, I absolutely loved it, but it’s a bit of a shock to the system after a lot of fairly standard novels. There’s surprisingly little character interaction, and what there is is very detached and clinical due to the introverted nature of the biologist. It ends up being strangely claustrophobic in tone, as there is no secondary viewpoint to balance her out and her clear disinterest and difficulties regarding social interactions only makes her more isolated as a narrator. She’s an intriguing voice to follow if nothing else. As for the plot, I probably couldn’t say if I actually know what’s going on in Area X, but I am hoping that the next installments of the series will be a bit more illuminating.

x

Seriously weird and claustrophobic, I would heartily recommend this if you’re happy with a slow burn and not much in the way of answers for now. The narrator is refreshingly introverted, although I appreciate it might not be everyone’s cup of tea. 5/5

Next review: Authority by Jeff VanderMeer

Signing off,
Nisa.

The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes

The Shining Girls was a book that I stole from my mum after she had finished reading it, although she seems to have forgotten it entirely by the time that I actually got round to reading it. I took it partly because I was intrigued by the premise, and partly because I had heard good things about the author Lauren Beukes.

The Shining Girls focuses on two main characters, Kirby and Harper. Kirby is a young woman who is trying to put her life back together after a brutal attack that nearly killed her. Attempting to track down the man who tried to kill her, she starts finding evidence that she isn’t the first woman who he has attacked, but some of the evidence is just impossible. Meanwhile Harper, having found a house that inexplicably allows him to travel anywhere within the years 1929 and 1993, is compelled to kill a set of girls whose names he has found written on the walls of one of the rooms upstairs, leaving a memento from one of his other kills at the scene of her death.
So I really wanted the whole time travelling serial killer premise to work for me, but it just doesn’t. It’s quite disappointing, especially as the writing itself is solid and engaging. But for me, the time travel just wasn’t implemented well, leading to two main problems.
Firstly, it’s really tough to make a thriller tense when you know that most of the awful stuff that the serial killer is going to do has, in another character’s timeline, already happened. Sure, the murder scenes are really well-written and horrifying in and of themselves, but it’s tough to maintain the tension when the reaction to each new female perspective chapter is “well, here’s the next sacrificial lamb”. The time and attention spent fleshing them out and giving them engaging problems seems kind of wasted since the reader knows that the next time their name crops up, they’ll be dead by the end of the chapter.
Secondly, it uses my most despised type of time travel, the ontological paradox, also known as a causal loop. If you’re not familiar with that, essentially it’s if person A is given an item by the elderly person B, then goes back in time to give that item to a younger version of person B. At which point you sit there and wonder how the item came into being in the first place if it’s constantly looping between two points in time. It drives me up the wall, and the aggravating part is that Beukes spends so much time setting up this closed loop. Spoiler alert, it turns out at the end that the reason the House makes Harper want to kill people is because the House is Harper’s spirit. Which is just infuriating, because it wants to be so clever and thematic, but it just brings up questions. How are the girls picked out as victims? Harper keeps mentioning that they shine, but the narrative never elaborates on what that is exactly. The only way that Harper knows about who he needs to kill and when he needs to go to kill them is via the House, so there’s never any thought process about why or how his victims are selected. It unwittingly leads to Harper being a more or less flat character, as he has no real motivations other than follow the House’s lead, for reasons that are never explained.

The Shining Girls is a prime example of an interesting premise that is its own worst enemy. What interest there could be from the impossible serial killer storyline is sabotaged by its own use of dated time travel tropes. There’s little tension because all the killings have already happened in one timeline or another, and the painstakingly constructed causal loop only brings up questions of how this all comes about as well as depriving the main villain of any meaningful motivation. The only saving grace is the writing itself, but there’s only so much that can be saved from this plot. 2.5/5

Next review: Blood Rites by Jim Butcher

Signing off,
Nisa.

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