Monthly Archives: August 2009

Desolation Road, Ian McDonald

Pyr, 1988 (2009 reprint), 365 pages, US$15.98 pb, ISBN 978-1-59102-744-7 aug28

Desolation Road may have popped up in US bookstores in the summer of 2009 as a trade paperback edition featuring artwork by SF look-du-jour artist Stephan Martiniere, but it’s not a new book.  This is really Ian McDonald’s first novel, published in 1988 and repackaged by Pyr books following the success of River of Gods and Brasyl.  McDonald, sadly enough, has had a rough career in the US: While his early novels were published in America by Bantam Spectra from the late-eighties to the mid-nineties (back when Bantam Spectra was, you know, good), he went into UK-only eclipse shortly afterward, until the success of 2004’s River of Gods brought him renewed transatlantic attention and a happy coincidence of interests with then-new publisher Pyr.

My own experience with McDonald’s work mirrors his overall success in North America: While I had generally positive feelings toward Evolution’s Shore/Chaga (albeit tempered by my ignorance that it was the first book in a series), Terminal Cafe/Necroville practically convinced me for five years that McDonald was writing SF that was too literary for my tastes.  It took the rave reviews for River of Gods to convince me (and how!) that I had to pay attention to McDonald again.

This being said, Desolation Road is nothing like McDonald’s latest books.  While River of Gods and Brasyl brought common SF themes to richly believable extrapolations of developing countries, Desolation Road takes on a half-phantasmagorical tone that owes more to Ray Bradbury’s Martian Chronicles than to the state of SF published in the mid-eighties.  It flows across genre boundaries –and not necessarily the ones you expect.  A three-decade-long tale of a city set deep in the Martian desert, Desolation Road often feels like a soap opera Western with wild SF tropes.  The prose doesn’t even attempt transparency: It’s an integral part of how the story is told.

The principal character being the city of Desolation Road itself, it’s no surprise if the (many) dozens of human characters have mere supporting roles.  People pop in and out of the story, sometimes bringing along their own storytelling mode and often making Desolation Road feel like a particularly well put-together collection of short stories.  The ever-shifting style contributes to this impression, as the novel will occasionally touch upon comedy, fantasy, horror or techno-SF.

The diversity of ways to tell the story often carries through to the tools used to advance the story.  McDonald is shameless in riffling through the entire roster of SF tropes to solve (or complicate) his characters’ problems.  Time travel, terrorism, robots, labour disputes, tangled lineages, snooker and corporate dystopian comedy all live one alongside others in this book, and it’s not nearly as confusing as it may sound.  In fact, this rich brew of elements is one of the best reasons why this novel feels just as fresh today as it did in 1988: It wasn’t trying to be part of the mainstream then, and contemporary readers have been trained to react well to genre-blending.  In fact, it wouldn’t take much to call Desolation Road an early example of SF-heavy New Weird given how it feels like a blend of well-known elements thrown in a genre-spanning framework.

It’s not a perfect novel (some segments are less interesting; the cast of characters gets a bit too large to manage effectively; the prose can occasionally feel too precious), but as a resurrected 1988 novel, it’s vivid enough to make me re-evaluate my top-five novels of that year.  While this re-edition has a number of issues (the typographic design of the book occasionally feels odd and there are numerous copy-editing mistakes), it’s an enlightened choice given how today’s readers are more likely to enjoy it as a cross-genre romp.  It’s a sobering reminder that McDonald’s has always been at the forefront of SF (even two decades ago) and that even his early work warrants a look.  Of course, I can’t help to wonder if the past ten years have made me a reader better-prepared to appreciate his work… and so begin the hunt for the rest of McDonald’s back-list.

Inglourious Basterds (2009)

(In theaters, August 2009) Quentin Tarantino is, if nothing else, a film-lover, and that’s why his movies are always worth seeing by those who feel let down by the rest of American cinema: There’s always something interesting in what he does.  This doesn’t mean that his material is always successful… but that too is part of the fun.  Few would expect Inglourious Basterds to be such a surprising film, for instance: The film promised by the premise and the trailer (American Jewish soldiers go killing Nazis in occupied France) is replaced by a talky drama that manages to make World War Two hinge on a movie showing.  Characters die when one doesn’t expect them to, and even the fabric of history isn’t immune to the twists.  One can quibble with the film’s casual regard for historical fact, but on the other hand it’s hard to dismiss a film that dares push a revenge fantasy to its logical extreme.  It’s easy to say that Inglourious Basterds is too long at two hours and a half, but at the same time the dialogue seems so tight that it’s difficult to say exactly where snippets should be cut: the deliberate atmosphere of the film is such that when character engage in a round of game-playing, we can rest assured that we’re going to see the entire thing play out.  Oh well; fans of Tarantino’s usual violence will be reassured that the bloody incidents are few, but explicit in all of their head-scalping, skull-batting, forehead-slicing gore.  The result is both satisfying and unfulfilling: While the film we have seen is a good chunk of cinematic goodness (and the performance of Christoph Waltz as the Nazi antagonist is simply magnificent), it wouldn’t have hurt to actually see the film promised by Brad Pitt’s superb southern cadences.  But, hey, my feeling is that Inglourious Basterds is going to be even better once the fully-loaded DVD edition comes out.  Which, considering Tarantino’s glacial pacing when it comes to special-edition DVD, may not be anytime soon.

Shorts (2009)

(In theaters, August 2009) Robert Rodriguez’s own brand of low-budget high-creativity filmmaking is always fun, even when it’s aimed squarely at kids: His movies move fast, take chances, show new faces and aren’t afraid to let things slide almost to the brink of anarchy before bringing them back in.  So it is that Shorts may be a middle-of-the-pack effort when it comes to his films-for-kids (above Shark Boy and Lava Girl, below the first two Spy Kids, roughly equal to Spy Kids 3D) and yet it warrant quite a bit of interest –especially once it will be available in a DVD edition with filmmaker’s commentary.  But in theatres, it still plays pretty well, with a fragmented storyline in five sections that are presented discontinuously: some running gags and set-ups are understood only in retrospect, and the shuffled presentation adds to the wild energy of the story.  The story is generally about a wishing rock that delivers on its promises, but it’s really an excuse for Rodriguez to riff on a few concepts (wishes going wrong, giant robots running amuck, small aliens helping out too much), create a bunch of pretty good kid characters and goof off for a while.  The manic energy of the film makes it hard to lose interest, and the kids are surprisingly non-annoying.  What Shorts lacks is higher artistic ambition and an overall lack of polish, but that’s not much of a problem considering what it does well.  But then again, it’s not as if I need to be convinced of Rodriguez’s brilliance.

Waiter Rant, Steve Dublanica

Harper Perennial, 2008 (2009 paperback re-edition), 302 pages, C$18.99 pb, ISBN 978-0-06-125669-1

I might as well get something unpleasant out of the way: I hate tipping.  I really, really hate it in the same way my Cartesian mind hates the unwritten rules of social interaction.  Oh, I still do it, sticking to the socially-acceptable “15% plus a bit more” standard, but I’m one of those who would rather pay more on my bill for fully-salaried workers and dispense with the added complication.  I like cold, hard printed numbers.

But after reading Steve Dublanica’s Waiter Rant, you can be sure that I won’t spend as much time raging against tips.  Part biography of a professional waiter, part anthropological exposé of the job, Waiter Rant tells you about life on the other side of the dining table.  Readers with an interest in fine web writing may recognize the title: After all, “Waiter Rant” was the name of a relatively popular pseudonymous blog.  Now the author, revealed during the hardcover publicity campaign to be Steve Dublanica, has stepped up to the demands of a major book contract.  Fans of the blog may be relieved to learn that the book is no mere reprint of blog notes, but that it arranges many of those incidents in a cohesive narrative.

It starts about seven years ago, as Dublanica becomes a waiter after professional setbacks.  At the time, it’s a temporary job at a pretty dysfunctional restaurant.  But Dublanica soon ends up working somewhere else as a waiter/manager, and the years pile up… by the time the narrative truly starts in Chapter 4, our narrator has been waiting tables at “The Bistro” for six years, and the pressures are piling up.  Waiter Rant tells us about the last year that Dublanica spent at The Bistro.

It goes without saying that Waiter Rant is an exposé of the waiter’s job.  The subtleties of the situations, the difficult clients that they encounter on a regular basis, the terrible things that happen even in high-end restaurants, the special holidays, busy shifts, tricks of the trade and ways to land on a waiter’s black-list: Waiter Rant has it all, and it’s told in crisp, hypnotically readable prose.  Dublanica has peered deep in the human condition, seen unspeakable things and he is gifted enough to tell us about it.  Bad patrons beware: Waiter Rant leaves you with no excuses and little justification. (There’s a handy 40-point checklist at the back to tell you how to behave. And so-called “foodies” can be the worst.)

But what could have been just a book of anecdotes and trade secrets soon becomes something else, as Dublanica’s facade as a professional waiter cracks to reveal a man stuck in his set patterns, a developing writer afraid to take the next steps, a waiter taking refuge in the known certitudes of his once-temporary job.  The external pressures on his job, as tensions at the restaurant escalate to an untenable climax, merely confirm his inner struggle to do more with his life.  It’s during those moments that our smooth and cynical “Jedi Waiter” becomes a well-rounded character: It’s a tricky balance, especially at first, but it develops in a successful narrative structure that does a lot for the book.

Dublanica’s strengths as a writer are obvious: He has a sharp eye for details, doesn’t embarrass itself with useless details, and often ends chapters on ironic notes.  He’s able to stand in the middle of his anecdotes, yet tell them from a detached perspective, using specific incidents to illustrate larger points of etiquette, sociology or economic theory.  Some of his techniques feel a bit too on-the-nose (such as a “dialogue” that passes off as a lecture on the merits of proper financial management), but they’re usually blips on an otherwise smooth narrative.

I picked Waiter Rant on not much more than a whim and ended up with one of my favourite reads of the year so far.  I may not like tipping because it’s so wide open to interpretation, social customs and the whim of the moment, but after reading the book, it feels as if I’ve been given the keys to understanding what tipping is about… and why it matters.  Until all of American society comes to realize the advantages of fully-salaried waiters, my 15% “and change” is likely to weigh a bit heavier on the “change” side from now on.  After all, as Dublanica writes, don’t eat out if you can’t afford the tip.

(One recommendation for savvy readers: pick up the paperback edition, which not only properly credits Dublanica on the cover, but includes an afterword discussing his success after the publication of the hardcover edition.  It makes for a truly satisfying epilogue.)

Post Grad (2009)

(In theatres, August 2009): How appropriate that a film about a confused young woman should be so conflicted about its own intentions.  A limp mix of drama, comedy and romance, Post Grad struggles with an unremarkable protagonist, an episodic structure, dull scenes and intermittent comic wit.  Alexis Bledel never engages as an apparently-perfect protagonist who still can’t get a job: her lacks of distinctive skills make for a bland lead that never earns any sympathy.  (It gets worse once we realize that this supposedly-smart woman with editorial ambitions never once considers moving to where the action is –New York- even when Columbia beckons another character.)  The script isn’t much better, mind you: Oscillating between wild comedy and family drama, Post Grad never seems to know what to do next: the dramatic threads are all underdeveloped, events happen without character intervention, and the whole thing soon feels like a slog.  The highlights are few and minor: Michael Keaton is a refreshing presence as a doofus dad, and the film makes a surprising amount of comic mileage out of a flattened cat.  One can only imagine the screenwriting process that led to such a scattered result: Was it a wild comedy toned down to a more general tone, or a hum-drum drama punched up with a few zanier moments?  We may never know, especially since it’s hard to imagine someone re-watching Post Grad to hear a director’s commentary.

A Perfect Getaway (2009)

(In theatres, August 2009): The good news about this latest film from writer/director David Twohy is that it’s a pure genre thriller working solidly within the conventions of the genre.  Unfortunately, this also means that it’s a thriller working against its own audience, lying to them in order to set up a surprise third act.  That shouldn’t be a surprise given the script’s meta-humour about “red snappers” and second-act twists, but it’s not so impressive when one consider the contortions the script has to inflict on itself in order to put the audience where it needs them to be.  There’s a technical term for those tricks, and it’s “cheating”.  This being put aside, the film in itself isn’t a bad piece of suspense cinema: Characters and handled well, the cinematography takes full advantage of its Hawaii location and Twohy understands a few things about directing action sequences.  As a piece of genre cinema, A Perfect Getaway is more engrossing than most, and the cheating required in order to deliver the twist may not bother some audiences.  In fact, it may be better to know in advance that there’s a twist: If you feel, watching the film, that it’s focusing on the wrong characters, well… hold on to that idea and don’t let the film trick you out of it.

Hollywood Babylon, Kenneth Anger

Delta, 1975, 300 pages, C$6.95 tp, ISBN 0-440-55325-3

I have been curious about this book for years, ever since first seeing the name “Kenneth Anger” and wondering what kind of person went by that name.  As it turns out, this writer/director is probably more famous for this book of vintage celebrity gossip than for any of the films he has made.

A detour by Wikipedia (the first of many) is useful to establish the context of the book: Raised in well-connected Hollywood circles, Kenneth grew up knowing where all the bodies were buried.  Uncharacteristically for a Hollywood child, he wrote it all down and ended up with a big trashcan of celebrity gossip.  Attempt to get it published in English failed (the first edition of the book, in 1965, was reportedly taken off the market after ten days) whereas a translation had no problems being published in France.  After lengthy delays, Hollywood Babylon was published in English in 1975, and legend has it that it revived interest in all things Hollywoodish.  In 2004, The Guardian attributed him nothing less than the responsibility of jump-starting celebrity tabloids: as they write, he “swung open the gates to a world of gossip in which our media now wallows”.  Impressive!

But how does the book fare decades later?

Well, it’s still a great ride through the celebrity scandals that rocked Hollywood between the twenties and the fifties.  Through saucy and hyperactive prose, Anger describes a “tribe” of hedonists, dominators, rapists and murderers.  Starlets rise and fall with monotonous predictability, what happens behind closed doors would scandalize even the most progressive among us and human folly is in never-ending display.  A typical page of Anger prose has UPPERCASE headlines, underlined dialogue for emphasis, a generous sprinkling of “scare quotes” and more names than you can look up in a phone directory.  To say that this remains lively reading is to understate the fun of wallowing in such go-for-broke rumors; while modern tabloids don’t shy away from such things, I wonder how much of it was a real shock to readers back in 1975.

The other aspect of Hollywood Babylon that still works is the avalanche of pictures that complement the text.  It remains, in that regard, a time machine leading us back to an era of strange old hairstyles, gowns and make-up..  Nearly every page has an illustration of some sort; the full-page or even dual-page spreads are plentiful, but be warned that graphic black-and-white violence is more plentiful than the occasional nudity: Anger seems to think that you can’t have a book about tragic murders and suicides without showing the bodies.

The real question, of course, remains what -if anything- of this is true. As I was reading Hollywood Babylon, my growing sense of familiarity with the content was answered by taking a look at my treasured Big Book of Scandals and finding out that Anger’s book had been used as a primary source.  Much of what Anger writes about can be corroborated with little effort:  In fact, chances are that you will page through it with a finger on your mouse to go and look up entries on Wikipedia.  There are plenty of fascinating stories in this book, and the truth (properly cited) can be amazing.  On the other hand, much of what the book says remains hearsay both in 1975 and in 2009: In most cases, Anger had the advantage of writing about the safely dead.

This may not be a profound book, but it does lead one to semi-serious thoughts about the fleeing quality of fame and the meat-grinder that Hollywood can become.  It’s tough to read about then-celebrities whose names are now completely unknown without sparing a thought for those current celebrities whose lives will end up as nothing but a chapter in some future gossip book.  It’s not hard to jump from the black-and-white photos to the desperate lives of those who want to be part of the Hollywood tribe, and the cruel irony when stories that wouldn’t warrant more than three paragraphs in a busy metro newspaper end up splashed on tabloid headlines because then happen to involve rich, famous or at least familiar people.  Hollywood Babylon may have been published thirty years ago and discuss people eight decades removed, but it’s being read by exactly the same readers.

Gake no ue no Ponyo aka Ponyo (2008)

(In theatres, August 2009): I may watch fantasy films, but they seldom resonate with me… and neither do kids’ films for that matter.  Both of those character flaws may explain why I’m impressed but not overly fond of Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo.  It’s skilful fantasy moviemaking that presents an original vision and yet… I’m less than thrilled about the entire thing.  It advances in fits and starts for those who aren’t completely absorbed in its visual panache, and the story itself is paper-thin with little suspense along the way; at most we get a few mysteries, but no serious drama: the final choice made by the protagonist is never in doubt, lending an air on inconsequentiality to the entire film.  Which may not be an inappropriate choice given the dream-like quality of the fable: Ponyo is definitely a kid’s film, after all, and the way it manages to impress Western audiences despite being firmly set in a Japanese rural area is still impressive.  If it doesn’t come close to Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke… then again what does?

The Time Traveler’s Wife (2009)

(In theatres, August 2009): As someone who really enjoyed Audrey Niffenegger’s original novel, I watched The Time Traveler’s Wife more interested in the mechanics of its adaptation than in the romantic aspect of the story itself.  It starts off well, with an opening sequence that efficiently explains what’s going on while remaining faithful to the premise of the story.  It’s no surprise, though, to find out that the most interesting elements of the novel, those that sent readers in unpleasant or horrific territory, have either been softened or removed entirely.  The emphasis of the film is strictly on the romantic aspect, and everything becomes subservient to it.  This being said, it’s amazing to see how little actually changes even when character back-stories are removed (poor Gomez, so useless in the film) and when tense sequences simplified to a shadow of their written selves –such as the wedding sequence.  A few more obviously cinematic sequences, such as the daughter-growing-up montage, don’t really compensate for the loos of the book’s depth.  As straight-up science-fiction, The Time Traveler’s Wife is unconvincing: The time-traveling conceit makes absolutely no sense, and the travels themselves are even more blatantly at the mercy of the demands of the plot than in the book.  It works a bit better as a romance, although many of the less pleasant implications of that aspect are left unexplored.  Still, both Eric Bana and Rachel McAdams are fine in the lead role, and romances don’t ask for much more than that.  The result, all things fairly considered, isn’t a failure:  There’s been a surprising number of romantic fantasies using soft SF premises lately (Kate and Leopold, The Lake House, etc.) and this is a fair addition to the corpus.

Generation of Swine, Hunter S. Thompson

Simon & Schuster, 1988 (2003 reprint), 313 pages, C$21.00 tp, ISBN 978-0-7432-5044-3

After years of relative silence between 1975 and 1985, Hunter S. Thompson was lured back to regular writing when the San Francisco Examiner offered him a regular column.  Generation of Swine certainly doesn’t try to highlight its lineage, but it’s a collection of 100 columns published between September 1985 and November 1988, in the waning years of the second Reagan administration.  The first few columns confusingly jump all over the chronology, and then settle down to a stricter order.  A lot of it, predictably enough, is centered around Irangate and the 1988 presidential elections: If you were looking for something like Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’88, this is it.

Thompson fans know, from the many biographies of the writer, that the Examiner columns stemmed from a mixture of greed and convenience, as a constantly-broke Thompson was looking for easy cash while he was back in San Francisco researching a new book at a strip club.  By the mid-eighties, Thompson’s glory days were at least a decade old: The columns in Generation of Swine clearly show a past-his-prime writer convinced that everything he writes is gold.  Despite what must have been heroic editing efforts (Thompson was a famously undisciplined writer even on his best days), the columns often read like disjointed rambling, flitting from one subject to another.

Occasionally, Thompson shows signs of inspiration: In a few columns, he lets loose an alter-ego named Skinner and gives him a few great lines, but this dramatic device is seldom developed.  Reading his thoughts on Irangate, it’s easy to be struck by the impression that Thompson is seeing this as a replay of Watergate: his certitude that either Reagan or Bush will be destroyed by the events reflect the flavour of the time (especially when Gary Hart is unexpectedly taken out of the presidential race), but they seem a bit misplaced when read later on.

The best passages are probably those which turn into self-contained short stories.  The book opens in a splendid fashion with “Saturday Night in the City” (about getting tattoos); later on, we get good pieces like “Last Dance in Dumb Town” (swindling in Colorado), “The Beast with Three Backs” (violence and sex in Montréal) and “The Gizzard of Darkness” (a trip to the fortune-teller turns sombre political punditry into something even darker).  Those pieces, un-tethered from reality, have the advantage of allowing Thompson to let loose with his usual world-weary fascination for violence: by the time he describes how Bill Murray and himself beat up punks in Montréal, we’re so deeply in his fantasies that we no longer care.

The rest of the book, sadly, isn’t like that.  A collection of catch-phrases and repetitive obsessions, Generation of Swine best showcases how badly Thompson had come to believe in his own mystique.  The columns read not like tales of the eighties, but as how someone from the seventies would perceive the eighties.  From the outside, it’s hard to guess how much impact Thompson’s drugs and apathy problems had on the writing of the column (or how much of it was written by other hands), but the overall impression is one of recycling material, of well-worn rants about new names.

Fortunately, there are the occasional gems in the collection, enough to make us realize how well Thompson would write when he could.  His use of invective may be repetitious, but it’s seldom dull.  Nonetheless, Generation of Swine still ranks pretty low in the Thompson bibliography: Most of the columns were written to fill newsprint and get a weekly pay-check.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing (after all, that’s how most of On the Campaign Trail ‘72 came to be), but it takes a writer of superior skill and interest to go beyond that and deliver something that is worth reading twenty years later.  Thompson wasn’t always able to reach that level by the late eighties.

District 9 (2009)

(In theatres, August 2009): There are a lot of things that annoy me about District 9: Elements of the premise makes little sense except in a satiric fashion (which the film eventually softens); the “magic mutation” shtick smacks of lazy screenwriting; the film’s eventual slide into action at the expense of ideas is well-done but a bit empty after the concept-rich first hour.  Nonetheless, I still want to defend this film against all naysayers for what it does well.  Starting in Johannesburg away from the western world is a first good step, but picking a nebbish, vaguely fascist bureaucrat as an unlikely protagonist really cements District 9’s intention to do things differently.  The aliens don’t escape this treatment either: few of them are portrayed in any positive light, making easy empathy with them even less obvious.  The pseudo-documentary nature of the film’s opening gradually cedes ground to more naturalistic hand-held direction, but it’s really the unusual nature of the film’s setting that captivates.  When the ideas recede to give way to the gunfights, at least they’re replaced by robust action.  After a summer of feature-length Transformers and Terminators, it’s a bit of a surprise to find out that a scrappy medium-budget film manages to outsmart its competition by featuring a restrained and gripping robotic exoskeleton sequence.  Taken together with a decent script and some clever direction, District 9’s risk-taking and uneasy adhesion to genre conventions makes it a superior B-grade science-fiction film, the likes of which we don’t see enough… but may soon do, thanks to the film’s remarkable budget-to-box-office success.  After an impressive apprenticeship in short films, director Neill Blomkamp suddenly finds a place as an accomplished genre auteur: District 9 may not be perfect, but watch what he’s going to do next.

G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009)

(In theatres, August 2009): Nobody expected much from a summer action movie adapted from toys and directed by Stephen Sommers.  Still, is it too precious to ask for an entertaining experience from start to finish?  G.I.Joe is occasionally fun and amusing: Elements of the first act dare to include over-the-top outrageousness (including a mysterious force relying on government-grade high technology) while the middle-act Paris sequence is an extended rollercoaster of an action sequence.  For guys, it’s hard to be left indifferent by a bespectacled Sienna Miller as sexy-evil Baroness, or (to a lesser extent) Rachel Nichols as Scarlett.  Meanwhile, Dennis Quaid is obviously having fun chomping on General Hawk’s cigars, and there’s at least one crazy/cool shot of an elevator ride through the G.I.Joes’ HQ.  But even those simple pleasures fade fast when the film seems obsessed to sabotage its own assets: The action highlight of the film takes place in Paris, but even that sequence fails to fully engage with the audience when it runs at a continuous high speed with concordant CGI overload.  The entire third act, despite enough CGI to cost twice the price-tag of two District 9 put together, is dull enough to put anyone to sleep, with only its own dumbness (“They’ve blown up the iceberg!  It will sink to the bottom of the ocean!”) to provide comic relief.  Worse; the Baroness character loses a lot of interest when she’s revealed to be brainwashed and, as such, really a good girl.  Boring.  The movie as a whole is classic Sommers, but the latter-day incoherent Sommers from Van Helsing rather than the genre-savvy Sommers from The Mummy.  Enjoy the ride, but don’t be surprised if you end up asking when it will finally end.

Smoke Screen, Kyle Mills

Signet, 2003 (2004 paperback reprint), 387 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-451-21278-9

After five conventional thrillers, it’s a welcome change of pace to see Kyle Mills try something new with Smoke Screen.  After repeatedly tackling sweeping threats to the nation, he here dispenses with his established style to tackle an entirely different subject with a brand new storytelling mode and an unlikely hero.

At first glance, there isn’t much to distinguish Trevor Barnett from countless other men in their early thirties.  Still stuck in a routine of dull low-level office work, weekend parties, attempts to find a girlfriend and prove to his parents that he’s worthy of their name, Barnett nonetheless has a few things going for him:  For one thing, his entire life revolves around cigarettes.  The family fortune was made on tobacco, and a twisted inheritance deal has him locked into tobacco-related jobs until retirement.  In the early days of the twenty-first century, however, that’s not the kind of thing that he cares to share with others.

His break from routine comes when, in a drunken stupor, he summarizes a complex report to a blunt sentence and accidentally has that summary delivered to the board of directors.  That’s when the CEO of the company he works for develops a liking to our narrator and puts him in charge of ever-more-challenging files.  Before realizing it, Trevor becomes an unwilling spokesperson for the entire industry just as a complex power-play is put in action.  Trevor soon will have enemies he didn’t even imagine it was possible to have.

One of Mills’ biggest strengths as a writer has always been his conceptual audacity.  Whereas other writers will feature drug-fighting heroes, Mills would rather imagine the massive intentional poisoning a chunk of the drug supply and the reaction of the authorities deal with the fallout.  In other novels, he imagines powerful cults not named Scientology, sends an FBI agent to become a master terrorist and supposes that Hoover’s secret files were still potent and around for the taking.  This kind of risk-taking is also at the heart of Smoke Screen, which takes on a feel halfway between Carl Hiaasen and Christopher Buckley’s Thank You for Smoking in delivering a low-thrill thriller that still manages to keep readers hooked from beginning to end.

The tone alone is worth a mention.  Trevor, from the very first few pages, is portrayed as someone for whom the tobacco industry has no secrets.  He’s familiar with arguments for and against what he does, delivering color commentary at his TV as anti-tobacco advocates make their pitch.  He knows that anti-smoking groups are largely financed by tobacco money; he understands how the government doesn’t really want to stop cigarettes tax revenue; he’s able to tie smoking to good old-fashioned American rights.  More than anything, though, he’s tired of the whole debate and when he gets a public platform, honesty is his first policy.

There’s really only one scene of traditional guns-and-perils suspense in the entire novel, and it comes as a bit of an intrusion.  Most of Smoke Screen’s fun is in following Trevor along as he tries to figure out whose pawn he is, and whether he can actually have an impact in the middle of his carefully scripted reactions.  There’s a bit of romance to spice things up, but there’s also quite a bit of unusual thinking about smoking and what the social response to it should be.  Mills is too smart to favour either stark pro/anti extremes, and his ultimate position is one that’s easy to respect.  One could quibble with some aspects of the plotting (market forces would not allow such a national shortage!), but there’s a speculative aspect to the novel that’s worth suspending disbelief over.

But if Smoke Screen has a pleasant depth in term of ideas, it’s first and foremost a terrific read: Trevor is an engaging narrator, and his adventures are worth following even when they don’t involve mastermind terrorists or national conspiracies.  In fact, I have no trouble calling Smoke Screen Mill’s most enjoyable novel yet: an original thriller that delivers a bit more than the compelling reading experience that we expect from genre entertainment.  It’s rare enough to see writers stretch a bit outside their usual marketing boundaries: to see someone succeed at it is even better.

The King’s Daughters, Nathalie Mallet

Night Shade, 2009, 299 pages, C$10.99 mmpb, ISBN 978-1-59780-135-5

Anyone who thinks it’s easier for reviewers to discuss books by friends and good acquaintances is seriously deluding themselves.  Serious reviewers are pathologically unable to say “Great book, buy it” unless they mean it.  They tackle books by acquaintances with even more trepidation than usual: If the book sucks, they either have to say so or shut up.  Given that shutting up a reviewer is about as easy as telling the hot wind not to blow (and I weigh my metaphors carefully here), you can imagine the tremendous psychic toll those situations can take.  Woe is us.

Where I’m going with this introduction is that I don’t consider myself a trusted impartial source when it comes to Nathalie Mallet’s work.  Like me, she’s a French-Canadian living and working outside Quebec: we first met at a west-coast SF convention and I have, since then, had a few good conversations with her and her husband at other conventions.  I was relieved to find out that I actually enjoyed her debut novel The Princes of the Golden Cage despite my general lack of enthusiasm for fantasy novels.  Similarly, I’m just as happy to report that The King’s Daughters is just as much fun to read, and confirms along the way that Mallet’s in business to write accessible, entertaining fantasy.  (It also avoids some of the deficient copy-editing that plagued the first volume; good job, Night Shade!)

It picks off where the first volume left off: Our narrator, Prince Amir, is heading north to meet his new fiancé’s family.  Given that she’s one of the titular king’s daughters, that means that Amir is about to enter another palace full of intrigue.  His first moments as a diplomatic envoy representing his country go spectacularly badly (it’s a bit of unconvincing plotting that diplomatic protocols aren’t as developed in Prince Amir’s time: you would expect in a real-world situation that gifts would be cleared with lower-ranked staff –alas this isn’t that kind of world), but pleasing his would-be in-laws soon the least of Amir’s worries: Amir’s delegation has been decimated by brigands, the king is a tyrant, the queen is sick, their daughters are being kidnapped one by one and a local bully has taken an unfortunate interest in our narrator.  Before we know it, we’re back knee-deep in issues of succession, magical enchantments and personal danger for Amir.  A colourful assortment of characters are there to spice up matters, from a pair of sinister foreigners to a flashy libertine who’s obviously not who he seems, without forgetting the usual proto-scientist.  Amir gamely tries to follow along, his known detective skills blooming into flashes of magical abilities.  While the first volume was steeped deep into Arabian mythology, this one makes use of its cold snowy Scandinavian environment, with a very different feel.

Although the plotting has a conventional quality that sometimes bothered me, The King’s Daughters makes good use of its narrator: Amir has the potential to develop into a full-blown hero, but he’s not there yet and part of his appeal is to see him flail about, get into impossible situations, not figure out the obvious and be flummoxed by the unexpected.  The sudden blooming of his magical abilities is a bit convenient (not to mention a tricky complication when Amir is often portrayed as a champion of rationality), but it does portend good things about his future adventures.

There’s certainly a lot more planned for Amir: The King’s Daughters ends on a surprising bittersweet note that defies a good chunk of reader expectations while making perfect sense in the context of a continuing series.  This is one of those books where it’s a relief to find the first chapter of the next volume included as a teaser: Amir is changing quickly, and his follow-up adventure Death in the Traveling City promises much.

In the meantime, The King’s Daughter is the kind of mid-list fantasy novel that plays up a few strengths of the genre (the romance of a castle, the power dynamics of a monarchy, the interplay between rough science and advanced magic) while avoiding some of its usual traps: It doesn’t depend on the events of the previous volumes for context (in fact, it does well at recreating an entirely new setting in less than 300 pages) and manages to take advantage of an unusual mythology without overwhelming readers with context.

I may not be entirely objective, but as a base reader I’m pretty happy with the result.

Moon (2009)

(In theatres, August 2009): Let me count the reasons why I wanted to love this film: It’s a pure science-fiction piece whose visual aesthetics clearly owe something to great SF films of the seventies.  It’s a quiet piece of psychological drama, limited to a few sets and a handful of characters (including a strong performance by Sam Rockwell.  It’s relatively smart, doesn’t depend on action or humour, and was produced on such a small budget that, if it’s successful, it may lead to other SF films of the same ilk.  Furthermore, Moon has been acclaimed by critics throughout its limited-release run, which is another rarity for films that wear the “Science Fiction” label with pride.  This being said, Moon may be a bit too successfully SF for its own good in that it wants to be compared to top-level genre stories… to its detriment.  No one will question the scientific accuracy of Star Wars, but the realism of Moon’s setting and machinery create expectations that can’t be met by the rest of the film.  As a nitpicky nerd, I was bothered out of my suspension of disbelief by such scientific errors as the Earth-normal gravity, the communications without light-speed delays or (ack!) the use of Helium-3 as an energy source.  Other signs suggest that the seventies aesthetics also betray the last time the screenwriter seriously read top-level SF: Question the assumptions of the plot (that a vital money stream depends on a single human point of failure; that the base’s Artificial Intelligence is incarnated in a single machine rather than distributed throughout the entire complex; that one would jam signals through blunt interference rather than by selectively manipulating the data stream) and everything feels dated and simplistic.  Throw in more explosions, gunfights and bouncy wenches and no-one would question Moon seriously.  As it is now, though, it looks close enough to hard-SF to be considered by hard-SF’s own standards and suffer from the comparison.  It’s still a really interesting film, of course, but it’s hard to recommend as a success when it fails to withstand the scrutiny it invites.