The Road by Cormac McCarthy

August 24, 2009 at 1:41 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Science Fiction | Leave a comment

There’s definitely something to be said for doing one thing and doing it well. In The Road, just about every word is intended to further evoke its grim, post-apocalyptic atmosphere. Everything superfluous to this goal has been boiled away, leaving a short but very effective book. A man and his son are trekking across the wasteland. If you’ve read enough books, seen enough movies, or even played enough video games, then you’re probably pretty familiar with post-Apocalyptic America. McCarthy doesn’t show you anything new, he just does a better job in showing it than anyone else does.

It’s very close to a perfect book in a specialized sense: the author set certain goals and executed them. If, like me, you hope for more than just momentary immersion when you read novels, you’ll probably come away feeling impressed but unsatisfied. But for many people, the conjunction of setting, mood, and character McCarthy manages in The Road makes it a great novel. You don’t win the Pulitzer Prize if you’re leaving most readers unsatisfied.

Luckily, at its relatively short length, I can recommend it to virtually everyone. You may or may not find it precisely to your tastes, but it’s worth your time to find out.

Thunderer by Felix Gilman

August 15, 2009 at 5:48 pm | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

This novel is almost a remake of Perdido Street Station, with a Peter Pan subplot. I originally read this observation in Abigail Nussbaum’s review of the book. By the time I read the novel I had forgotten her review, but the connections are so clear that I remembered without having to go back and look. If you haven’t read Mieville’s book, what that means is this is a fantasy taking place in a large and well-drawn city, a city that is in many ways the main character of the book.

The city has a much different conceit than Mieville’s, in that it is a city with thousands of “gods”–not the Greek kind but the strange supernatural forces kind, somewhat reminiscent of the angels in Ted Chiang’s “Hell Is the Absence of God”. That sounded quite interesting, but past the fantastic opening section the supernatural angle is of minimal importance. Yes, it’s involved in the mechanics of the plot, but you could rewrite the book to take place in, say, Mieville’s divinity-less world without any difficulty.

If you haven’t read Perdido Street Station, I think that’s the superior book. Mieville’s language and dark imagination make his novel more interesting, original, and memorable. If you have read it, you may think (as I did after reading the linked review above) a very similar book would still be worthwhile. And you’d probably be right. The book suffers from the same faults as Perdido (namely a plot that is overshadowed by the setting and characters that are not particularly sympathetic or intriguing) but is still an engrossing piece of fiction.

The Peter Pan subplot was much less successful. While it has a more realistic approach to the band of thieves cliche than most urban fantasy novels manage, it felt like it didn’t end up amounting to anything. The book takes the structure of Peter Pan but leaves out most of the ideas that have made Peter Pan enduring and doesn’t add anything of its own.

All in all it’s a decent read, but very much in the shadow of greater works. Not a bad effort for a first novel. I’ll be back to give the author another a try.

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