Speculative fiction challenge 2012

The second book in the Disillusionists super hero trilogy.

Publication year: 2010
Format: Audio
Publisher: Audible
Narrator: Rebecca Wiscoky
Running Time: 10 hrs and 19 minutes

Justine Jones is a hypochondriac but thanks to Sterling Packard she can now project her fears into other people (this is called a zing). Packard is the handsome leader of the Disillusionists, a group of neurotics whom Packard has given the ability can project their fears into other people. Packard chooses villains who have hurt other people as the targets. Justine is still not happy about twisting other people’s minds that way but she has grown to accept it when the targets are hurting other people.

Justine’s newest target is Ezmerelda, a woman who can invade other people’s dreams and make them do things while sleepwalking. Years ago before she was unofficially imprisoned, she made other people into cannibals. Justine has to touch Ez in order to zing her and now Ez has a channel to Justine’s dreams. And Packard’s. However, Justine isn’t convinced that Ez was behind the cannibal attacks and wants to be sure that she’s guilty.

At the same time, three people are shooting highcaps, the people with super powers. Even the highcaps don’t know each other so Packard and the city’s new mayor Otto Sanchez are very interested in stopping the shooters. The trio (called Dorks because the mayor doesn’t want the press giving them cool names: I loved that!) have some way to shield themselves against the highcaps’ powers.

The Disillusionists have their work cut out for them but then Justine suspects that something else is also going on. The plot is quick with a lot of twists and the ending is a real surprise and promises interesting and dramatic things for the last book.

Unfortunately, Justine’s love life is still rather confused. Previously, she was hesitating between two men, Packard and Otto, and chose Otto. However, she’s still very much attracted to Packard and her new relationship with Otto isn’t on solid ground. She makes the mistake of not telling crucial things to Otto and she angsts about it. This is my least favorite aspect of the series. Packard can read psychology and he profiles other people quickly. However, Justine is convinced that he’s wrong about her. In the previous book Packard lied to her and manipulated her coldly, and Justine can’t trust him.

On the other hand, Otto is committed to keeping Midcity’s population safe. He’s also a hypochondriac and his fear is the same as Justine’s. Otto seems quite heroic compared to Packard but they share a dark history. In the previously book Otto was the police chief and he has been elected mayor since then.

The Disillusionists squad is just as entertaining as before. They are all neurotic and that of course colors everything they do and say. They often go undercover to meet their targets and zing them with a fear. This creates great comedic moments. For example, Justine pretends to be a nurse and she can push her fear of diseases into the targets. During the book, the group has to make interesting moral choices. Simon, one of the neurotics, calls the team “reverse emotional vampires”, which amuses me greatly.

The book is written in first person and present tense.


Publication year: 1996
Publication year of the Finnish translation: 1998
Finnish translator: Mika Kivimäki
Format: print
Page count: 315
Finnish publisher: Otava

First off, I really don’t care for the Finnish cover. The only thing that interested me in the cover was Gaiman’s name (I was already reading Sandman at the time).

Richard Mayhew is mostly an ordinary man; he lives in London in a small apartment, has a job he doesn’t love but doesn’t hate either, and he has a fiancée, Jessica, with a glamorous job. However, he has an unexpected side too: he sees the homeless as people and wants to help them. In fact, this trait gets him into trouble. He and Jessica are on their way to an important meeting when Richard sees a wounded girl on the street and insists on helping her. Jessica walks away in a huff; she gives money to charities and that should be enough. Richard takes the girl to his apartment.

However, Door is no ordinary girl. She’s from London Below and two eccentric murderers are tracking her. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandermar have killed Door’s whole family and coming to her next. Door tries to keep Richard out of trouble but doesn’t succeed.

Through his random act of kindness, Richard gets mixed up in the bizarre world of the London Below where the people who fall down the society’s cracks live as best they can. It’s full of wonders and adventure but also a place for misery and betrayals. People and places aren’t what they appear to be at first glance. The people living in the London Above don’t know about this other London and indeed often don’t even see the homeless and the sick around them.

London Below works on a barter system with items and favors, and Richard has very little to barter. In fact, he has difficulties in believing what is happening right before him. Yet, he tries to help as best he can.

Neverwhere is full of strange and eccentric characters and places. Gaiman took London’s place names and made them more literal places or people. Old Bailey is an old man who lives on the roofs with his birds and the Earl’s Court is literally a court that the Earl keeps.

Even though many of the people living in London Below are desperately poor and live in awful conditions, the book has a lot of humor, charming characters, and wondrous little moments.

The second book in the Blood series.

Publication year: 1992
Format: print
Page count: 281 in the Blood Books, volume 1
Publisher: DAW

Vampire Henry Fitzroy asks Vicki Nelson to help him in a professional capacity. Two members of the Heerkens family in London (Canada) have been shot dead and they can’t go to the police because they have a secret: they are werewolves. The members have been shot in wolf form. Vicki is astonished at first but accepts the situation quickly and agrees to help the family. She and Henry drive to the small town and to the Heerkens’ sheep farm where they meet the rest of the family. The two wers had been killed at night from a long range so the shooter has to be extremely good.

Vicki starts to investigate the neighbors and everyone else who lives nearby and has the skills and the chance to make the shots. One of them is a cop. The pack’s leader has an adult son who is the only one of the pack who works among humans. Colin is a cop in the London police department and his partner Barry Wu is an Olympic shooter. There are also birdwatchers and other people running around in the woods near the farm. The closest neighbor is a religious vegetarian. Vicki doesn’t have much to go on but she’s determined to find the murderer.

Vicki and Henry start the book dancing around each other. They’re attracted to each other but haven’t yet slept together. Then, Vicki’s long-time lover Michael Celluci shows up. He’s almost burning with jealousy and has run background checks on Henry. He found suspicious gaps in Henry’s life and decides to drive to London and confront Vicki with them. What follows is a lot of alpha male posturing. Unfortunately, I don’t care for that and Mike comes across as a possessive asshole. He and Vicki also snarl at each other instead of talking so Vicki almost as much a jackass. Henry is his charming self but most of the book is set during the day, so he doesn’t appear much.

I really enjoyed the wer. For Huff’s wer, shape changing is as natural as breathing and they do it almost as often and whenever they please. This results in a six-year-old running around first in boy form and then in his fur form which was amusing. The wers also say that humans smell weird so they aren’t attracted to humans. The wer keep to themselves as much as possible. Clothing restricts the change to they try to keep as little of it as possible but have to learn to keep them on for school. Some neighbors think that they are nudists. The females also come to heat instead of following the human mating pattern. Huff has modeled the pack closely to wolf packs; there are both a male and a female alpha who run the pack, and they are the only breeding pair. It seems that many births are twins and even triplets are mentioned. The wers also follow their instincts more than humans usually do. I found their pack dynamics interesting and more wolf like than is usual for urban fantasy.

The first book had several horror elements in it, but this one is clearly a mystery, not a horror book. A great second book for the series and to me it was better than the first book.

The first book in the Blood series.

Publication year: 1991
Format: print
Page count: 272 in the Blood Books, volume 1
Publisher: DAW

Victoria “Vicky” Nelson is a former cop and now a private investigator. She loved her job as a homicide detective and was in a tumultuous relationship with her fellow cop Mike Celluci. However, she has an eye disease called reginitis pigmentosa which has already destroyed her night vision and peripheral vision, and caused nearsightedness. In time, she might go blind. The disease forced her to leave her job. She still knows people in the force, though, which comes in handy.

A murderer is stalking Toronto and the papers have dubbed him (or her) a vampire because the victims have been found with their throats torn and blood drained. Vicky stumbles into the latest killing in a subway but manages only to catch a glimpse of the killer, and she doesn’t trust her failing eyes. Later, the first victim’s young girlfriend, Coreen, wants to hire Vicky to catch the murderer. Coreen is convinced that the killer is a real vampire. Vicky hesitates but takes the case.

Henry Fitzroy is a vampire hiding among humanity. He’s convinced that the killer is a newly made vampire who isn’t being taught properly and he wants to find both the new vampire and his (or her) maker. Of course, his detective work is limited to nights.

Henry is the bastard son of Henry VIII, over 450 years old, and we get see flashback from his long life. I really enjoyed them. Henry remembers most of them because something in the present reminds him about the past (similar to the Highlander series). He’s a romance writer and there are brief snatches of his current work.

The Blood books were written twenty years ago, before the big surge in the vampire paranormal romance books. Huff manages to make Henry a sympathetic protagonist but not a glittering romance hero. While Henry requires human blood to survive, he doesn’t have to kill to get it. In fact, he seems to enjoy gently biting his partner in the middle of sex and drinking a little so that she (or he as it’s hinted in a small scene that Henry’s bisexual, though he seems to prefer women) doesn’t even notice. Also, Henry is a Catholic and religious items and places don’t bother him.

Vicki is an independent woman who isn’t afraid to use violence when she has to. She’s also a skilled investigator and uses her connections to the police. She feels like she has to prove to herself and everyone else that she can still do her job. This makes her forceful, angry, and driven.

The third major POV character is Norman Birdwell, a student at the local York University. He doesn’t have any friends and feels that the others just laugh at him (which they do). He’s out to get respect for himself. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very interesting character but of course he’s very realistic.

The plot is a pretty basic mystery with engaging characters. I enjoyed Vicki and Henry, and the fact that they both already had lovers and weren’t just waiting to meet each other. I was less impressed by the relationship Vicki and Mike had; they screamed at each other and then fell to bed.

A fun, quick read.

A stand-alone SF novel.

Publication year: 1962
Format: Audio
Publisher: Tantor Audio
Narrator: Kevin Foley
Running Time: 8 hrs and 20 minutes

William “Will” Halloway and James “Jim” Nightshade are best friends and live in the Green Town. They meet a lighting rod salesman who predicts that a storm is coming. Sure enough, that same night several men in the village sense that something is coming. They smell cotton candy and licorice in the wind. Then Cooger & Dark’s Pandemonium Shadow Show comes to town. At first the boys are eager to explore the carnival’s rides and shows. However, soon they find out that a horrible evil lurks in the carnival wanting to corrupt everyone it meets.

Will and Jim are twelve years old. They run and play in the town and find excuses not to go to school. But when they are faced with the carnival’s evil, they think that they are helpless; they’re just kids in adults’ world and nobody will believe what they say.

In addition to Will and Jim, Will’s father Charles is a major character. He’s a janitor in the library and has a tendency to wax philosophical about life and the nature of good and evil. At first the boys are very reluctant to tell him what is going on, but when they tell Charles, he turns out to be very useful. At the start of the book, Will and Charles aren’t very close; Charles is jealous of Will because of the boy’s youth. But they grow closer during the story.

Bradbury’s writing style is very chatty especially when he describes Charles’ thoughts. This might feel pompous and can slow down the story.

Unfortunately, I didn’t connect with the characters at all. Technically, the book is very good but to me it didn’t have any emotional impact.

Foley is mostly a good narrator. Unfortunately, he makes a high, whining voice for the boys and that started to grate on my nerves quickly.

A stand-alone science fiction book.

Publication year: 2002
Format: print
Page count: 422
Publisher: TOR

Jayachanda Nihalani, Jaya, is the daughter of a conjurer, a scam artist who preyed on the gullibility of the poor and desperate people around him. He claimed that his magical powers came for the gods and the people wanted to believe him. However, Jaya could really hear voices from someone or something outside herself and her father made use of that, too, and Jaya became known as Jaya Devi. Then Jaya got involved in a civil war, supporting the side who didn’t want the old Indian caste system to come back. Her side lost.

Now, years after her father’s death Jaya is suffering from a debilitating disease called Selengue and a creature appears whom Jaya at first thinks is a goddess but it claims to be a rakasha, a demon. However, it turns out that the creature is neither, but an alien who has come to Earth to make the planet part of a vaster interstellar empire. The empire seeded the Earth long ago and now considers the planet and the people its property. Jaya is the first Receiver who is able to hear the alien depth ship in orbit. The alien Ir Yth doesn’t seem to care about Earth or the cultures on the planet. However, then another alien arrives, Sirru, who might be more interested on Earth. Jaya hopes that the aliens might be able to cure the disease but don’t know if she can trust them.

Jaya’s country, India in 2030, has suffered under various conquerors and Jaya is very skeptical about the aliens. She knows that colonizers bring disease and suffering. Her caste, the untouchables, are already suffering from the Selenge which even the Westerners can’t cure.

In this near future story, India has brought back the caste system. People who have been used to having lives and careers are suddenly unemployable, and of course not happy about it. The alien ìrRas empire has also a rigid caste system but one where it’s possible for a person born in one caste to improve his or her whole caste’s position. One of the castes is apsara: a courtesan-translator. The aliens claim to use sex as means of communication rather than for pleasure and procreation. However, we only see this communication aspect used once and I’m not entirely sure how it would work or why it would be needed on their own planet.

The aliens use living technology; even their houses are alive and it’s difficult for the aliens to grasp of living in a place which has never been alive. They seem to be empathic; they can project their feelings and thoughts to each other, and communicate more through them and through controlled pheromones than words. They also have implants which control their emotions and devices, which are technically illegal, which control what emotions they are projecting.

There are some satirical elements in the story: the Westerners are not happy that the aliens didn’t land in US and many of the Indian people aren’t happy that their representative is from the untouchable caste. From the alien side of things, they aren’t evil conquerors or monsters, but more like bureaucrats doing their paperwork about Earth and how it will fit into the Empire. I also got the feeling that they aren’t terribly competent. Also, a movie is being made from Jaya’s life and the lead actress decides that she’s more important the Jaya.

This isn’t an action/adventure tale but focused on scheming. Jaya isn’t sure who she can trust, if anyone. There’s a strong sub plot set in the center planet of the empire where Sirru’s lover gets mixed up in politics. The story explores also colonization and alien use of diseases.

The ending leaves many things unanswered and feels to me more like a first book in a series. I would be happy to read more about this world.

The first book in the Chronicles of Tornor but can be read as a stand alone.

Publication year: 1979
Format: print
Page count: 222 plus an appendix about the cards of fortune
Publisher: Berkley

Col Istor has just conquered Tornor Keep and killed Lord Astor, the Keep’s stern but beloved ruler. However, Col lets Astor’s son and heir Errel live if Astor’s commander Ryke will work for him. Ryke has no choice but when he realizes that Col has made Errel a jester, it’s almost too much. Errel works in his new role while he and Ryke plot for escape. When two messengers arrive to Tornor, Errel thinks that they can be persuaded to help. The messengers are feared ghyas, hermaphrodites who skin their enemies alive.

Watchtower starts as a pretty standard epic fantasy but turns out be about clash of cultures. Errel and Ryke flee to a valley which they thought to be a myth. The society in Tornor and the Keeps around Tornor has strict hierarchies and gender roles. In Tornor, women are essentially chattel and men are either rulers, soldiers, or peasants. However, there’s no stigma for having a child outside marriage for the woman or the child. In Vanima, there are no servants and masters, women have as many opportunities are men, and everyone has to work for a living in the fields or as goat herds or doing something else productive. Errel takes to this life easily but Ryke considers it alien and can’t wait to get back to his normal life. The story also tells about brutalities done during a war.

In Vanima, fighting is also done differently. While elsewhere soldiers rely on strength and weapons, in Vanima both men and women train in martial arts. They also have dancing which resembles martial arts.

Ryke is pretty standard fantasy hero. Even though he’s not yet thirty, he’s set in his ways and more loyal to his lord than his family. His mother and siblings live in the village near Tornor and we get to see them a few times. However, he’s more worried about Errel than if his mother or sisters are going to live through war. Errel is more scholarly than a warrior but he’s also bound to his duties and will do what he can to his people. There are also several secondary women characters and even a lesbian couple.

Errel uses the Cards of Fortune to get vague hints about the future. They are apparently very similar to Tarot cards. They are supposedly magical although Ryke doesn’t believe in them.

The book has a map which confirms something I found a bit strange: all of the Keep are withing a few days ride to each other. The supposedly mythical Vanima valley is just eight days ride from Tornor. That seems a bit strange. Surely people would have explored at least a little around their homes? The book is set in the North with bitter, hard winters so people are pretty much forced to hunt and scavenge to keep alive. Also, the highly hierarchal society seems out of place in such a harsh environment.

« Previous PageNext Page »