Tag Archives: A. Lee Martinez

Divine Misfortune, A. Lee Martinez

<em class="BookTitle">Divine Misfortune</em>, A. Lee Martinez

Orbit, 2010, 307 pages, C$24.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-316-04127-0

I have read practically everything by A. Lee Martinez, but only reviewed a few of his books: While his premises are almost always interesting, what he does with them isn’t always worth talking about.  He seems to have one favourite plot structure in his bag of tricks: show a few ordinary oddball characters in amusing genre situations and reveal one of them to be a hidden god fit to do battle against a terrible enemy beyond space and time in a bid to control all of the multiverses.  It’s not a bad plot per se –but like so many other overused things, it really starts grating when it happens over and over again.  A Nameless Witch particularly suffered from this plot device overuse, as did Monster.  Adding to the problem is that Martinez is never as enjoyable as when he’s writing about ordinary people stuck in extraordinary situations: the moment he reaches for the overblown, the metaphysical or the multiversal, I could hear my interest in his books falling to the floor… to remain there.

With Divine Misfortune, he revisits this familiar plot, as our lead characters are once again stuck in-between warring gods.  But wait!  The premise is, for once, used effectively.  There are fewer surprises on the way from mundane strangeness to all-out divine combat.  Our ordinary character courts divine intervention from the get-go and the framework of the novel’s universe is suitable to such things.  After all, Divine Misfortune takes place in an alternate dimension in which gods are real and can be courted by mortals.  Their influence comes directly from the number of worshipers they have and if everyone wants a piece of Zeus or Yahweh, there are thousands of other gods willing to pay just a bit more personal attention to you if you can prove to be an effective worshiper.  There aren’t many differences between our contemporary North America and theirs, except for video-matching services for suburban go-getters looking for an extra advantage in life.

People like Teri and Phil, for instance: ordinary white-collar workers looking for a bit of help for their commute and mortgage.  Teri’s never been one to worship a domestic god, but Phil thinks it’s a splendid idea, and before long the couple has settled upon Raccoon-shaped Luka, a minor god of prosperity who will make things go their way… as long as he can crash on their couch for a few days.  The welcome-in party, at least, gets epic as soon as Luka invites his friends…  and some of them start hanging around.  Divine Misfortune may be the only novel so far in which we get a laugh out of Hades being beaten at Death Ninja 3, and at Quetzalcoatl lounging on the couch, “watching telenovellas”.

In between divine domesticity, we get glimpses at other gods, some of them definitely nastier than others.  So when Phil starts fighting off unusually violent squirrels and being used as a Job-like figure between warring gods, we’re ready for the escalation and the result feels like a logical plot development rather than something thrown in there to lead the story somewhere.  The big finale uses so many gods that it starts feeling like a comic-book cross-over event, but Divine Misfortune never quite completely loses its connection with its ordinary characters, and that’s one of the reasons why it succeeds at the exact point when some of Martinez’ other novels became less and less interesting.

It goes without saying that the novel is joy to read, in-between the light-hearted details of a universe in which gods can directly influence human destiny.  It’s not a laugh-riot, but it’s good enough to keep up a smile during most of its duration.  While Divine Misfortune doesn’t have the mythological weight of more ambitious fantasy such as Gaiman’s American Gods, it’s after a different kind of impact and it succeeds quite a bit better than many of Martinez’ other books.  It’s probably still a bit too scattered (some of the scenes involving the antagonist felt too long and laugh-free compared to the rest) and the last act gets a bit too dark, but it’s better-handled than most of the author’s other novels –and there’s more basis for comparison there than the usual.  This is Martinez’s best since The Automatic Detective and Gil’s All-Fright Diner; I just hope that he’s got the sense to realize that he’s done the “fights between gods” shtick as well as he possibly can, and that he can now move on to something else.

The Automatic Detective, A. Lee Martinez

<em class="BookTitle">The Automatic Detective</em>, A. Lee Martinez

Tor, 2008, 317 pages, C$16.95 tpb, ISBN 978-0-7653-1834-3

One of the most interesting things about our genre-saturated entertainment culture is that everyone has at least some basic understanding of the specialized protocols that drive, say, mysteries or Science Fiction. We’ve caught enough TV shows rehashing the same plots, seen enough movies riffing off past ideas, read enough genre books that some useful fiction plot devices have become ingrained in our imagination. Talk about a robot, and everyone will picture a humanoid hulk of metal. Mention a Private Investigator, and everyone will see a smoke-filled office, a middle-aged guy in a trench-coat and a beautiful blonde asking for a simple favor.

For a satirist like A. Lee Martinez, it’s a natural vein to exploit. Why not combine the clichés on SF and hard-boiled mystery fiction to create a parody of both genres? Martinez’s novels so far, starting with Gil’s All-Fright Diner, have been amusing take-offs on popular segments of genre fantasy and horror. The Automatic Detective is his first look at SF clichés, but the same instincts that have served him so well on previous books are once more displayed here.

Mack Megaton is the hero of the story: a big, red robot designed to destroy but now trying to fit into normal society. Mack’s got anger issues, and his job as a taxi driver isn’t helping much. So when bad things happen to his neighbors and even worse things threaten Empire City, he opts for a career re-alignment and decides to do a little private investigation.

The Automatic Detective is not meant to be serious Science Fiction. Empire City and its citizen are straight out of Pulp SF clichés, with easy jokes, silly world-building and the obvious use of familiar tropes. The narration itself is pure hard-boiled machismo made metal, with Megaton and friends worrying about oil changes, electrical charges and rusting plates. Mutants, aliens and fancy technology all make appearances, highlighting the deeper truth that this is surface SF, maybe even science-fantasy, playing with quasi-outdated SF gadgets not because they make sense, but because they’re familiar to everyone. (There’s an intriguing comparison to be made here between this book and Charles Stross’ Saturn’s Children, which attempts to re-cast familiar SF archetypes in a plausible modern world-view.)

This sounds like a criticism of Martinez’s approach and it isn’t: From the way he piles up more and more of these references, it’s obvious that he doesn’t mean to pass this off as contemporary SF with deeper meaning: he’s out to write a romp, and he manages to reach his objective. The Automatic Detective is a good read, one that makes good use of its initial premises. Mack is a sympathetic character, and it’s not tough to cheer for him as his investigation continues. Martinez knows how to plot, and the book holds together well once the reader’s usual hard-SF nitpicking circuits are deactivated.

In lesser hands, this could have been a mess of surface SF, with gadgets used nilly-wily without any attention to plausibility. Here, there is some rigor and a sense that Martinez’ voluntarily pulpish milieu is tied into the conceptual framework of his jokes. It’s also a fast read, which helps smooth out some of the background inconsistencies that arise when blending together so many SF devices. Purely and simply, it’s a romp and it should make a number of readers smile regardless of whether they can quote chapter and verse from Asimov and Chandler.

For Martinez, it’s another solid hit that should solidify and broaden his reputation as one of SF&F’s most entertaining satirist. It’s not enough to have jokes: he’s able to beef up amusing premises with solid plotting, good characters and smooth writing. Best of all, his books should be accessible to a wider public who’s already familiar with the genres being parodied, whether they realize it or not.

Gil’s All Fright Diner, A. Lee Martinez

Tor, 2005, 287 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35001-7

Saying that this book is pure fun diminishes it somehow. As if the bland truth failed to account for the full experience. As a plot-driven reader, I can often find myself out of vocabulary when comes the time to discuss atmosphere and characters. Gil’s All Fright Diner is one of those book: Though it has plenty of narrative ideas, it sticks in memory for the prose and the good fun of the protagonists.

It starts in a pickup, which is appropriate considering that the novel takes place in a small Texas town where the scenery is made out of sand. Our two travelling heroes, Duke and Earl, aren’t your usual redneck drifters: One’s a werewolf, the other’s a vampire, and together they can fight the even worse kind of undead creatures. As they settle down for a late dinner, they quickly find out that their host has unusual pest-control problems. But it’s not the diner as much as it’s the city… especially when there’s a teenage witch running around stirring up trouble.

The novel truly hits its rhythm as the heroes face off against the undead. Friendly banter, sharp prose, amusing ideas and folksy charm all combine to form a hybrid of Terry Pratchett and Joe Landsdale. Undead cows get a short time in the spotlight as the young female antagonist has to make do with what’s at her disposal: It’s not easy trying to destroy the world when you’ve got schoolwork, no shopping outlets for magical supplies and a minion whose only reason to stick around is trying to get in your pants.

Character-wise, it’s easy to give Duke and Earl the full benefits of character sympathy: Their aw-shucks shtick, equally made of jaded weariness and buddy-buddy dynamics, is immediately likable, and they make terrific protagonists: Not too cowered, not too cocky, with enough amusing banter to plaster a big permanent smile on anyone’s face.

There’s a comic-book sensibility to the entire novel, which is horror without being horrific, and comic without being comedy. Gil’s All-Fright Diner apparently won a YA award, but this should be a guide to the unpretentious nature of the story rather than to the thematic content: There is plenty of undead gore, harsh language and unwholesome lust here to please everyone, including the teenage boys in the audience. There are a few scenes of ichor-mopping here and there (the fights are fun, but it’s the cleaning up that really sucks) and the teenage witch has no compulsion at using her body to get what she wants… which includes the protagonists of the story. Add to that a vampire who hasn’t had a date in ages, a moping ghost as well as a feisty diner caretaker who knows how to get satisfaction and the result is, as I never get tired of writing, a whole lot of fun.

Could it be better? Probably. Some of the comic ideas get old really fast, such as the Pig-Latin spell-casting. As with all horror/comedy hybrids, the tone can be uneven as it races from splatter to silliness. There is an almost-complete absence of weightier thematic concerns, which really isn’t a prerequisite for this type of novel, but could have made it even better. Although, as I write this, it occurs to me that Gil’s All-Fright Diner is almost a point-for-point parody of the latest urban-horror vogue. By taking the usual monsters-fighting-monsters plotl and setting it in small-town constraints, Martinez indulges in a clever reversal of the usual clichés.

Still, there’s a lot to be said for a small perfectly-formed piece of entertainment that delivers exactly what it promises to do. In many ways, Gil’s All-Fright Diner reminded me of TREMORS with its small-town atmosphere, redneck banter and mixture of action, terror and humour. Sam Raimi, in his earlier phase between EVIL DEAD II and DARKMAN, would have been the perfect director for a cinema adaptation of this novel. As it is, it’s sufficiently close to a charming B-Movie aesthetics that many media horror fans will feel right at home.

But Gil’s All-Fright Diner is more than a good book that ends well: it’s the kind of story that, only a few pages in, lets you know that you’re about to enjoy this experience and doesn’t disappoints afterwards. Everyone will make it to the end with satisfaction, perfectly happy that everything went well. It’s a great debut novel by an author who obvious knows what he’s going. Don’t miss it if small-town horror comedies are your idea of a good time.