DeFlip Side #52: A Literatary Darkness

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Welcome everyone. I’m Christopher DeFilippis, and this is DeFlip Side.

Well, it happens every year, and every year, it’s still comes as a nasty surprise. Just when you’ve been good and spoiled by lingering summer evenings, the sun starts calling it quits at five in the afternoon. Nights are suddenly longer and colder. The time of darkness has descended, and as you drag in the deck furniture and start sealing the windows, you can’t help but think that someone, somewhere, has made some terrible mistake.

About the only upside to this whole winter deal is that you don’t have to spend so much time working in the yard, which means more time for reading. So I offer two reviews tonight, of books with subject matter suitable to usher you into this season of death.

The first is especially befitting, since it deals with nothing less than the annihilation of the human race. The book is called It’s Only Temporary written by Eric Shapiro.

Ever since Shoemaker-Levy 9 made its tremendous splash into the Jovian atmosphere in 1994, the Giant Comet Collision (TM) has become the doomsayers’ darling when it comes to end of the world scenarios.

In It’s Only Temporary, author Eric Shapiro serves up yet another helping of this apocalypse du jour, only this time there’s no Bruce Willis or Robert Duvall in sight trying to stop the catastrophe. There’s not even a Ron Eldard. Instead, we meet Sean, who is taking a much more prosaic approach to the impending disaster, as I quote:

“So I wait. I watch the meaningless clock. I have long talks with my friends. Try to read Buddhist books. Try to read Palahniuk. Smoke tons of marijuana. Eat tons of junk food. Masturbate constantly. Drive nowhere. Stay out of the frightening streets. And more than anything else: think about Selma. Despite the panic burning up my mind, somehow there’s always room for Selma.”

I was hooked when I read that paragraph, along with the rest of chapter one, available free at the It’s Only Temporary website. I don’t know if I’d waste my last days smoking tons of marijuana, but I’d certainly unkick the habit go a little bit nuts with the Newports. Who wouldn’t?

Sean’s realistic and all-too-human reaction to a world turning slowly upside down under the weight of its own imminent demise plays out as downright charming; especially next to the melodramatic heroics we’re used to seeing in the Giant Comet Collision (TM) genre. Sprinkle in some poignant observations and a dash of macabre humor, and you seem to have the makings of a winner.

Unfortunately, Shapiro’s novella fails to live up to its promising start. Sean’s longing for Selma, an ex-girlfriend whom he still loves, does eventually spur him to get his act together, and six hours before disaster is supposed to hit he determines that he should be with her.

But Sean’s end of the world road trip quickly takes an unexpected turn and soon both he and the narrative are suffering from a severe lack of direction. His series of misadventures are supposed to be outrageous, but mostly come off as implausible, even ludicrous at times.

These vignettes are thinly connected by the thread of Sean’s musings, in which it becomes apparent that he has some mental problems. Gone are the insightful ruminations of the first chapter, hijacked by oftentimes ponderous ramblings that read like the journal entries of a schizophrenic, edited by said schizo after he’s gotten back on his meds and leveled off a bit.

These rather severe criticisms notwithstanding, the book isn’t unreadable. There was no point at which I wanted to throw it across the room in disgust. It just didn’t meet the rather high expectations I had set for it.

If you’re looking for something to compare it to, for some reason it kept reminding me of Joe R. Lansdale’s Drive-In books, especially book two. So if you’re a fan of those, you might want to try Shapiro’s work for yourself.

Even if you end up hating it, it won’t take up much of your valuable reading time. That’s probably one of the stronger selling points of It’s Only Temporary: it’s only 100 pages.

Tonight’s second slice of literary darkness is the novel The House of Storms written by Ian R. MacLeod.

It is the 99th Year in the Age of Light. The magical substance aether fuels the miraculous advances of this industrial era, where guilds jealously guard their cabalistic trade secrets.

And perhaps no one harbors more secrets than Alice Meynell, Greatgrandmistress of the Guild of Telegraphers, who possesses beauty and cunning in equal measure. She will stop at nothing to advance the prowess of her guild and, by extension, her own social standing.

But for all her manipulations, Alice is still thwarted by the incurable illness ravaging her son Ralph. And so the pair comes to Invercombe, a sprawling manse on England’s west coast, where the clean sea breezes hold the last hopes for Ralph’s recovery.

They soon discover that the air of Invercombe does indeed hold some kind of inherent power, which Alice is more than willing to exploit, though it may come from a troubling source: the nearby settlement of Einfell, a village filled with creatures who were once human but have become hideously transfigured by too much aether exposure. Shunned by society, these changelings nevertheless possess fascinating powers. And Alice is no stranger to brokering for power.

Meanwhile, Invercombe’s colorful human denizens are showing the Greatgrandmistress how business is done in the west, legal and otherwise, and she quickly spots a commodity that could vault the wealth of her guild immeasurably.

And so author Ian R. MacLeod sets the stage for The House of Storms, revisiting the alternate England introduced in his 2003 novel The Light Ages.

I initially approached The House of Storms with some trepidation. As much as I liked the magical Gilded Age society MacLeod had presented in The Light Ages, I found that novel somewhat disappointing. (I was in the minority; the book drew raves from just about everyone.) Yet I did appreciate a few of its more outstanding elements, chiefly the author’s considerable world-building skills and his exploration of both the wonders and dangers inherent in handling aether, represented by the bizarre transformations afflicting the changelings.

But The Light Ages lacked pep, its fantastic premise mired in a plodding tale of social revolution waged by a rather mundane lot of revolutionaries. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but I find absolutist ideologies (socialist or otherwise) tedious, and the characters in The Light Ages struck me as unrealistically naive for clinging so readily to a movement that was obviously doomed to fail (as MacLeod showed us it would right in the prologue).

Fortunately, House of Storms presents a much more realistic take on the way power is gained and kept, personified in Alice’s deft use of both strong-armed tactics and shadowy machinations in order to get what she wants. She soon proves herself a puppet master of frightening capabilities who will take any step necessary—sociopathic or otherwise—to see her plans come to fruition, even if it means plunging England into civil war. And she’ll use anyone, even her beloved Ralph, as a pawn in those pursuits.

The character of Alice Meynell by herself is enough to atone for the entire humdrum cast of The Light Ages. But MacLeod gives us so much more.

Readers also get to know Marion Price, a willful and intelligent girl from a neighboring shore village whom Alice brings to Invercombe to work as a maid, but who soon gets close to a miraculously recovering Ralph. Alice may drive the story’s action, but Marion lies at its heart.

Also masterfully crafted is Ralph’s journey from death’s door, initially filled with all the ebullience of youthful self-discovery, only to be poignantly tempered by the inevitable comedowns that follow those first optimistic steps into manhood.

A diverse and entertaining supporting cast surrounds these central players, including many changelings, along with another brilliant main character who enters the story in the second half of the novel.

With The House of Storms, MacLeod has written the book that I so badly wanted The Light Ages to be: one in which his lyrical and creative prose buoys compelling characters immersed in a story that’s entertaining, complex and even genuinely shocking at times.

Though there are some fleeting references to characters and events in The Light Ages, the action in The House of Storms takes place about 100 years later. It is more a stand alone novel in a shared universe than the second book in a series. But I recommend you read The Light Ages first if you haven’t already, since it lays much of the societal groundwork on which The House of Storms treads, seemingly confident in the assumption that readers are already somewhat familiar with the territory. If you’re not, you should take a field trip as soon as possible.

The House of Storms is a prime example of the type of literate human drama that is coming to define modern Fantasy. And it has enough bloody twists to be considered a work of light horror as well.

In all, a perfect mix to get you in the proper frame of mind for the coming darkness.

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