In a staggering move, in the last couple of days I’ve managed to finish two whole books. Granted, the first is one I’ve been reading very slowly since the beginning of October and only just got round to polishing off, and the other I’ve been dipping into for a month but isn’t really that long; but knowing me, and the fantastically slow pace I get through books, getting to the end of anything is something remarkable.
I used to read every day, and lots: when I first came to uni, I’d read 30-40 pages a night, and rapidly got through a lot of Discworld and Star Wars Expanded Universe stuff. Since I’ve been doing my PhD and living with Bryony and such, I just don’t devote much time to reading anymore; so it usually ends up being a quick few pages in the five minutes before I go to sleep, and maybe a few chapters in a coffee shop on my single day off on the weekend. However, I kind of made it my unofficial New Year’s resolution to do more reading (unrelated to, but kind of similar to Andy’s and Dan’s ’52 Books in 52 Weeks’ efforts; click here to find Andy’s blog on the matter), particularly the sort of steampunky adventure tales I’m into at the moment.
So, armed with a Christmas haul of Waterstone’s vouchers and book tokens, I picked up a few new books, the first of which was this:
Lavie Tidhar – Camera Obscura:
I chose this on a complete whim, largely because I was won over by the stunning cover and spine artwork, but also because I was drawn in by the synopsis with such phrases as ‘murder most foul’, ‘whirlwind adventure’ and ‘reptilian royalty’. I was largely unperturbed by the fact that this is technically the second in the series (the ‘Bookman Chronicles’), given that there didn’t seem to be any real key plot points that require reading them in order, so ploughed straight on in.
On the whole, the story is a solid, rip-roaring gaslamp-era romp: set (initially) in a steampunky, alternate Paris, focus is largely drawn on Lady De Winter, an agent working for the underground, governmental organisation of the Quiet Council, pursuing the perpetrator of a string of grizzly murders on the Seine; but also on the hunt for an alien artefact arising from China that’s drawing major attention from the city’s factions. The initial set-up is mouth-watering, but the fast-pacing of the story quickly diverges from those promising beginnings to vault into a heady tale of villain-chasing and mystical powers, and the promise begins to deteriorate. There’s enough excitement to be had, though, but it’s at the expense of exposition, and leaves one wishing that the story would focus and flesh out one area of the tale before moving to the next. Indeed, chapters rarely exceed five pages, and it ends up feeling too much like a slew of set-pieces strung together than an opportunity to augment any emotional connection with the characters.
That, however, remains the major criticism, since the text itself reveals enough of the historical (Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec! The Moulin Rouge! Nicola Tesla!) and the fantastical (Mechanical prosthetics! Gateways to other universes! A reptilian Queen Victoria!) to maintain a constant interest, and the tale contains abundant levels of dialogue and thought-process; even if a lot of the discourse is the sort of cliched conversation you’d find in any low-budget action movie. In that sense, both the story and the medium through which it is presented act merely as architects for the imagination: on their own, both remain ultimately underdeveloped and leave the reader wanting, but adding a sprinkle of mental imagery to fill in the gaps goes a long way to fleshing out the under-developed plot with something of more substance. Of course, that may not appeal to those readers who want the text to develop itself and communicate its own tale, but this is a book more akin to a ‘choose-your-own-adventure’; providing the bare bones of the universe, but leaving it to the mind to solidify the full experience.
Yahtzee Croshaw – Jam:
Best known for his consistently superb video game reviews over at The Escapist’s Zero Punctuation, it’s sometimes overlooked that Yahtzee is also a fantastic full-blown novelist. Jam, his second book, is a sheer delight and deftly combines his dark playfulness with accomplished storytelling to create an engaging, humour-filled tale.
The plot is essentially one of a standard zombie-horror premise, except one in which the zombie flood is actually, er, jam. Imagine an undead apocalypse set in Brisbane, except with a tidal wave of carnivorous jam; throw in secret government agencies; a MacGuffin of a software build stored on an ever-changing-hands hard drive; and a rag-tag collection computer nerds, coffee baristas and Goliath Birdeater spider. Turns out, Australia has succumbed to a flood of man-eating Jam that assimilates organic matter, chomping through the majority of the populace during a busy rush hour, leaving roommates Travis and Tim to awake to a scene of Brisbane covered in a sea of preserve with only a few pockets of civilisation remaining. What follows is a 400-page romp as the gang traverse the Jam; meeting other survivors along the way and attempting to escape the red menace, but not before they figure out what’s happened, and why. Often encompassing events which traverse the silly and end up in the downright bizarre, the story is amusing and page-turning: the concept, posing a stereotypical zombie apocalypse à la 28 Days Later, except with a jam-based twist, is a virtuoso move, and one which opens up a wealth of opportunities for entertaining set-pieces and inventive goings-on.
The tale bounds along at quite a pace, maintaining a constant level of tension balanced perfectly with comedy, levering an effortlessly engaging narrative that scarcely has a problem preserving (pun most definitely intended) the reader’s attention and interest throughout. It’s delivered in an easily accessible style; delicately paced to avoid plot dead-zones and balanced to ensure that the tale neither becomes too heavy, nor too trivial. Unlike Camera Obscura, this is a world which is fully constructed, with complex inter-personal relationships which are integral to the ongoing tension of the adventure. And far from being predictable, the book regularly throws up unexpected events to maintain the pace and scenes which keep just on the right side of the silly/serious boundary to retain the novel’s graceful vision of a farcical, jam-based version of Dawn of the Dead. A unique, entertaining piece of work, it’s most definitely a valuable read, and I can’t recommend it highly enough: I command you to seek it out, spoon it up and get stuck in.