System Failure – It’s All Fun And Games Until The Universe Is Ending

51x1uwexerl._sx332_bo1204203200_November is science fiction month, so we have been trying to theme our reviews around this incredible versatile genre that has a lot to offer. The majority of the science fiction genre deals with serious subjects and deep philosophical conversations about the future of technology and the human condition – but not all of it. In recent years, we have been increasingly seeing satirical science fiction books that poke fun at the genre, making you laugh out loud while providing a fun science fiction adventure. Epic Failure, by Joe Zieja, is one such series. The books are a trilogy, comprised of Mechanical Failure (reviewed here), Communication Failure (reviewed here), and System Failure which came out about a month ago. Today we are going to talk about the series as a whole, where I feel it ended up in its journey, and what I think of the final installment in this memorable and funny series. I want to spend more time talking about more high-level summaries of the strengths and themes of the books. If you want to dig into the gritty details like the plot and characters I would recommend checking out the previous reviews of the first two books linked above.

If you don’t have time to read my previous two reviews, my general thoughts on the first two books were as follows. Mechanical Failure is a fairly funny book that falls a bit flat but feels like it has potential. The story follows Rogers, a navy mechanic as he tries to avoid all responsibility and just relax in his position. He is a generally unlikable character, the book consists primarily of bad things happening to him due to the consequences of his actions, and for most of the book, it feels like the plot is fairly light and mostly used as a way to set up (good) punch lines. However, by the end of the book, the characters show some growth, and some actual plot begins to surface. In book two, Communications Failure, Rogers somehow ends up a captain of a ship and ends up having to navigate a complex political situation with finesse and poise. It goes poorly. Overall, Communications shows noticeable improvement in every metric. The humor is better, the characters all grow into deeper and more interesting people, the world is fleshed out, and there is an actual plot that is exciting to follow. The book is a whirlwind of fun from start to finish and it left me chomping at the bit to pick up the finale.

Now we have System Failure, the conclusion to this trilogy. System Failure is an interesting book, in a lot more ways than one. At the start of the book, Rogers finds himself once again promoted against his will to the admiral of a joint task force to save the world. The plot of the book follows his attempts to begrudgingly pull the universe together, rally everyone to fight a reality ending threat, and become a better person in the process. Now that I have finished all three books, it is really interesting to look back and see the percentage of page space devoted to humor vs. serious themes and plot. While all three books have both, the focus on humor decreases with time and the focus on themes and plot increases with time. System Failure sees a noticeable change in the focus of the story. While there is still a ton of humor and laugh out loud moments, the humor is now used as a lens through which to discuss serious subject matters, like taking responsibility for your actions, sacrificing for the greater good, and providing a bizarre and horrifying commentary on the reality that is the military. It is an interesting shift that I didn’t expect to happen, didn’t think I wanted, but now greatly appreciate having read the book. Zieja had to work very hard to make this transition happen, and although I miss some of the focus on humor I think his final piece of the trilogy is an impressive piece of writing.

If I had to focus on one place in particular that the book stood out it would be how Zieja handled the character arcs of Rogers and Deet. Rogers’ character growth is subtle. You don’t even notice it as it is happening until you start looking backward. His slow transition into a better person who takes responsibility is joyful to read. The emotional payoff is enormous, and it leaves you with a warm feeling that nicely balances out the hilarious but depressing commentary on the state of the world. Likewise, the major side character Deet, an AI coming to terms with sentience, is also captivating to watch. Although Zieja used humor and satire as his vehicle for Deet gaining awareness, I still felt like his character arc was an interesting take on how humans and AI develop emotions. Zieja uses humor, the mildly frustrating inane crap we all deal with, and empathy to showcase for his AI character what it means to be human. It is a hilarious and accurate portrayal of what it means to be sentient, and it’s one of my favorite things that makes System Failure stand out. Finally, it is also worth noting that the end of the world plot is pretty exciting as well. There are awesome space battles and an action-packed climax that was supremely entertaining.

System Failure, and Epic Failure as a whole, is a wonderfully unique science fiction experience. Zieja is a man of many talents, and his ability to write a series that is humorous, heartfelt, and smart all at the same time is impressive. These books are one of the hidden gems of the genre, and if you want to read something that is extremely entertaining and can recommend to everyone you know, you should definitely pick it up. Although the Epic Failure series has had its last chapter, the ending of the book was surprisingly open-ended and I am crossing my fingers that Zieja will keep going with the story. I am not quite ready to leave this fun and thoughtful world quite yet.

Rating: System Failure – 8.5/10
-Andrew

Exhalation – Brilliance With Every Breath It Takes

71wcezdltrlEveryone should read this book. Last year I decided to watch the movie Arrival on a whim. It was already late, I just wanted something on in the background while I did work in bed, and I thought it looked like a fun movie I might enjoy half watching. Two hours later, I woke my wife up because I was sobbing so hard and then since she was now awake, I proceeded to rave to her about one of my new favorite movies. If you haven’t seen Arrival, you should do so. But what does that have to do with today’s review? Well if you live under a rock like me and are also somehow unaware of the Science Fiction sensation Ted Chiang, the movie Arrival is based on a short story that he wrote. Although he is quite famous and accomplished, I somehow hadn’t heard of him. Luckily for me, a kind and thoughtful friend, who knew of my love for Arrival, purchased Chiang’s latest collection of short stories, Exhalation, for my birthday. I don’t usually like short stories because I feel they have a harder time telling meaningful stories compared to full novels. So while I was excited to check out more from Chiang, I put the book low in my to-read pile, but with the looming deadline of our best of 2019 list, I decided to read it in case it deserved a spot on our best of 2019 list. Spoilers, it does, and way at the top.

As I mentioned before, Exhalation is a short story collection that is about three hundred pages long. There are nine stories in the collection, and they vary wildly in length with one being less than four pages long and another taking up a third of the page count at around one hundred and ten pages. I decided I was going to read one story a night over a week and some and use the book as a nice palette cleanser for my larger books. That did not happen; I read the entire thing in a single sitting and then went back and reread some of the stories I liked more. What I expected was a brilliant and talented sci-fi writer spitballing some ideas in a stream of consciousness. What I got was some of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking, and mesmerizing explorations of both classic science fiction quandaries and new ideas I had never considered. The nine stories in the collection and a quick line on their topics are:

  • “The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate” – Time travel and destiny
  • “Exhalation” – Nature of the universe
  • “What’s Expected of Us” – Nature of free will
  • “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” – Nature of AI
  • “Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny” – Human development
  • “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Feeling” – Historical accuracy
  • “The Great Silence” – The search for intelligent life
  • “Omphalos” – Creationism
  • “Anxiety is the Dizziness of Freedom” – Decisions and their Consequences

Many of the stories have been previously published in other places and cover a long period of time in Chiang’s writing career. Chiang clearly curated the selection, allowing the stories to enhance each other and the larger themes of the collection. I loved almost all of the stories and feel it was probably the strongest short story collection I have read. The only story I wasn’t completely enamored with was the longest one, The Lifecycle of Software Objects, because I felt it was a little slow and was about a subject I find less interesting. That said, even my least favorite story I still consider a work of art.

Chiang has beautiful prose that is both efficient and evocative in its descriptions. He seems like an author that thrives in the short story format and knows how to do more with less than most other authors I have read. He also has an Einstein-esk quality about him in that he seems to strive to make complicated topics as comprehensible and accessible as possible. I think anyone, regardless of their affinity with science fiction, can pick up and enjoy this book. Chiang presents complex, nuanced ideas and arguments but compacts them with brilliant minimalism to make them easily digestible, without sacrificing depth.

The two shorts that best exemplify Chiang’s incredible ability to emotionally and intellectually capture his reader are What’s Expected of Us and The Great Silence. At less than four pages, I laughed when I opened the book to What’s Expected of Us? I thought, “What argument can an author possibly make in four pages that is meaningful?”. The story is about a simple beeper that is precognitive. It knows when you are going to press it and will light up a second before you do. In the four pages of the story, Chiang argues that the existence of such a device disproves the idea of free will and if you can accurately predict any event in the future, you can accurately predict all events in the future. It would be an impressive concept in a full book but is all the more so because it is explored in depth in such a short space. The second story, The Great Silence, is based on the actual grey parrot Alex who showed signs of self-awareness and high intelligence while he was alive. The story is about how in humanities search for extraterrestrial life they are so focused on the stars that they can’t recognize intelligent life right in front of them. At eight pages in length, this story managed to move me and break my heart at the same time.

One thing I particularly appreciate about Exhalation is there is an author’s note at the back. In it, Chiang talks about the inspiration and experience that inspired each story and helps you better understand the motivations and meanings of each story. As a whole, the collection exudes purpose, thoughtfulness, and curiosity. I think this would be a perfect book for any book club because there is so much that I want to talk about with people who have finished the stories. Since finishing the book I have harassed multiple friends into buying it and going on the journey through the stories. If you are looking for a Holiday gift for a reader than look no further. Exhalation by Ted Chiang is easily one of the best books that have come out this year, and you absolutely should have a copy on your shelves. To the person who bought it for me as a gift, thank you.

Rating: Exhalation – 10/10
-Andrew

The Sacred Throne – I’m Putting It On A Pedestal, Try And Stop Me

I’m not usually the guy on here to write about fantasy, though I do love it. If you went through my history, you’d see I tend to talk more about science fiction. But once in awhile, some fantasy books come along that I have to talk about. As you can probably guess from the title, The Sacred Throne trilogy by Myke Cole is one such set of books. This story is an ambitious grimdark fantasy that succeeds on multiple levels through Cole’s loyalty to his characters and immersive worldbuilding. While I would like to hype it up more before diving in, the review is quite a long one, so we should just get started.

91-puub74zl

The Sacred Throne trilogy is made up of the books The Armored Saint (previously reviewed by Andrew here), The Queen of Crows, and finally, the soon to be released The Killing Light. The story is centered on Heloise, whose life is thrown into turmoil when the Order arrives in search of a sorcerer. The Order is a group of religious fanatics who serve a Godlike Emperor. Their job is to make sure that demons do not take hold within the mortal realm, which happens when someone uses magic to any degree. The Order’s methods for keeping their world demon free would make the Spanish Inquisition squeal with glee. Heloise’s life starts to break down as she refuses to take part in an Order-commanded Knitting, a village-wide witch hunt, effectively refusing the Emperor’s decree. When the Order demands retribution for Heloise and her father’s actions, the town rallies around them in a small revolt. Heloise joins the fight and dons the Palatine armor, an armor reserved for those chosen by the Emperor himself, and helps to temporarily defeat the Order.

81krv4dt38l

The Queen of Crows takes place immediately following the events of the first book. Heloise is recovering from her wounds from the battle with the Order to find out that the Palatine armor (think of it as a steampunk mechanical suit) she had been wearing was left behind in order to save her life. Heloise and her village are taken in by the Travelling people (known to the villagers as the Kipti, or homeless), who promise to safeguard them within their roving caravan. The surviving brothers of the Order are regrouping while the village determines what to do next. The obvious choice is to invade another small village, recruit them to their cause, and prepare to be besieged by a larger army. I want to avoid too much plot detail, because Cole did such an amazing job with the pacing by slowly upping the ante with each battle and each book. There is a deliberate and realistic escalation with each conflict that hooked me everytime. A grimness infiltrated every aspect of the story, and created an atmosphere that filled each calm before the storm with dread. I’m not usually one for pop culture references, but the trilogy felt like the Battle for Helm’s Deep stacked on itself three times.

81hheui0g8l

To be a little more honest, I’ll say that the plot itself is a pretty standard “rebel against the current status quo” affair. Highlighting it, to me, doesn’t necessarily do the book a disservice, but I will say it’s not what hooked me into this trilogy. I’ll always be on board with “war against the crown” stories, but it takes a little pizzazz to make it feel new and fulfilling. That said, I think Cole did something special with The Sacred Throne. He built a fairly realized world within a short amount of time. He filled it with characters that felt so natural to their setting, it felt like reading a myth about a historical event. The brutality on display is stark and unforgiving, but Cole does a very good job not revelling in it. It’s a fact of life, and the characters who take it to the extremes see it as a duty, not a luxury, but it’s also inexcusable to people within the story. So I wanted to do a more thorough dive into what Cole does so uniquely within The Sacred Throne. I’ve tried to remain as spoiler-free as I can, but be aware that the events of The Armored Saint and The Queen of Crows will be discussed.

The setting feels like the foundation for the rest of what I want to dig into. Cole has built a small but expanding world that is bleak as hell, but incredibly compelling. The drudgery of medieval life is apparent from the first page of The Armored Saint. He makes the dreadful mundanity feel real, as if everyone has their purpose ordained and that’s all they have to live for, especially amongst the peasants. On top of all that, though, Cole built a hierarchical society that feels suited to the world he has created. The power of the Emperor infests every interaction between his subjects and the Order. The language Cole uses throughout the series to define the different relationships between characters and how they view the world is meticulous and deliberate, heightening the divide between the people that populate the land. There is a maliciousness to the ideology that feels apparent from the beginning, wherein the people respect the power and good deeds of their godlike Emperor, but hate the Order, known as the Emperor’s right hand, for taking liberties to enforce his Writ. They rely on their interpretations of the Emperor’s words to bear the burden of the Order’s boot heel on their back, creating an inescapable cycle of violence. This is not only seen in the narrative but reinforced by sections of the Writ, and the journals of Samson Factor, Heloise’s father, that preface each chapter.

Where the setting really begins to pull weight, though, is when the rebellion begins. I cannot stress enough how much I love Cole’s portrayal of a peasant revolt. It feels unplanned, frightening, and as though it could collapse at any moment. Everything I listed before worms its way into how Heloise, and the people who follow her, battle against the Order. There is a subtle and distinct way the townspeople and Heloise differ in their perspectives. Heloise knows, and does not hesitate to mention, that they are actively fighting against the Order, regardless of how the Emperor may be influencing them. However, there are a lot of townsfolk– her father included– who believe that the Emperor’s light shines upon them, and if they can just prove that by fighting the Order, things could go back to the way they used to be. They continue to fight, but only because their faith is placed in the very man whose laws have sentenced them to death. This is evident in the townsfolk’s language surrounding their fight, about how they revere Heloise as an instrument of the Emperor, and how the Order is a perversion of the Writ. This is not a rebellion to most of them, but a testament to their Emperor’s commands and their need to serve him to the fullest.

The rebellion gets even more interesting as it becomes more of a coalition between Heloise’s village, the Travelling People, and eventually the army of the Red Lords. The ragtag rebellion slowly becomes a Revolution, with the different parties vying for a similar goal, but not the same one. Cole manages to make the bickering of these different parties not only realistic, but interesting and conflicted. There is an incredible sense of urgency; decisions have to be made on the fly, and some people may suffer for it. Issues were left unresolved at points because they did not have the time, or even the ability, to solve them. What I enjoyed so much about these councils and interactions is the characters’ individual and community biases were front and center. The language hinted at what individuals thought of each other based on the groups they were from, and how they could use each other to achieve their goals. The Revolution’s success was a ticking clock, but the parties involved could not relieve all their internal tensions prior to the big battle. However, there was a give and take, along with a slow and very unsteady recognition of each other’s humanity and purpose. It was a succinct snapshot of what an unplanned revolution might look like, amongst people who do not have the terminology to understand their needs, let alone the time.

I’ve refrained from talking about Heloise through most of the piece up until this point because to be honest, she feels set apart from everything I have discussed. She starts with an innate distaste for the Order that is stronger than the ambient mistrust her village shares. She is more openly defiant in front of them, and the Writ seems to hold no sway over her. She does not seem to harbor negative feelings towards the Emperor, but neither does she praise him in the ways her father and the others do. She talks about her deeds as things she has done, or actions the armor allows her to take, instead of as divine acts from the Emperor himself. I say all this because it feels a little dissonant, until you realize she does not belong in this world. There is no vocabulary in the book that describes it, but simply put, Heloise is a lesbian, something the Writ forbids. Thankfully, Cole is not subtle about it, but neither is he indulgent in ways other authors might be. It’s simply a part of her; it feels important to her but also incredibly dangerous to let others know her secret. It’s integral to her worldview in that even if she were able to get the Order off the village’s back and the status quo restored, her existence would be still be dreadful, so she fights with everything she can.

Heloise has a similar, if more complex, relationship with her village as well as with the rebellion. In some ways, she helps to foster the rebellion with her open acts of defiance, but she does not force the village into it. They hide her family from the Order of their own volition. Only when she emerges from the tinker’s shop inside the Palatine armor does the village begin to subconsciously alienate her. Her community instantly and reverently otherizes her as soon as she is able to use the armor. The way they talk about her is different, no matter how many times she tries to downplay her role. How they listen to her also changes, as her opinion becomes the will of the Emperor in their eyes. She becomes a symbol out of the desperation that she and her fellow villagers all feel. Meanwhile, her encounters with the Travelling People and eventually the Red Lords are vastly different from each other. They allow her to feel a sense of responsibility and all the good and bad that comes with it. In return, she engages with the communities on their own terms, learns their world views, and attempts to reconcile differences between them in order to maintain the alliance. Her otherness becomes a larger part of who she is, allowing her to navigate the space between.

Within that navigation, Heloise starts to grow and become an adult. Her relationship with herself is easily one of the more rewarding aspects of the book, as Cole really dives into introspection. Given that the books are on the shorter side, I imagine it’s pretty tough to fit in small moments for Heloise to think about who she is. Cole puts a lot of effort into relaying how Heloise really feels about everything around her, making these moments seamless with the rest of the story. The interactions she has with nearly every character feel important and have a heightened quality to them. Her inner voice is incredibly apparent, especially when dealing with her father and other villagers who consistently place her on a pedestal. Over time, this inner voice becomes more resonant with how she talks out loud, forming a more coherent whole. It feels like Heloise is literally reaching out through the armor she wears, testing people’s reactions to her ever more radical feelings. This is nicely paired with the fact that the armor does not protect her from everything. She is consistently wounded, and sometimes even maimed operating the machine in battle. As I said previously, Cole does not delight in this mayhem, making Heloise’s injuries feel doubly important as if to say, you cannot hide from the world no matter how powerful your armor. Over the course of the three books, Heloise takes this lesson to heart, and it’s incredibly heart wrenching.

I had never read any of Myke Cole’s work before, and before reading this Andrew told me “Cole never does anything by halves.” I have to say, I have never heard more succinct or accurate description of an author, and The Sacred Throne highlights it brilliantly. Everything in the series feels honed to precision from the setting, to the character work, to the themes. It’s clear that a lot of work and love went into these books, and it doesn’t feel like a miracle that it paid off. Even weeks after reading them, I can’t stop thinking about them. My mind feels like a crow picking at a beautiful bounty of a corpse, always finding fresh little morsels to satiate my curiosity. So if you would, please come take part of this feast and enjoy all that The Sacred Throne has to offer.

Ratings:
The Armored Saint – 7.5/10
The Queen of Crows – 8.5/10
The Killing Light – 9.0/10
-Alex

Famous Men Who Never Lived – Open Your Heart And Your Reality

51tsalt2b0el._sx321_bo1204203200_Famous Men Who Never Lived boasts an incredible premise that earned it a spot on our Dark Horse list for 2019. K Chess’ tale promised alternate timelines, a commentary on immigration, and a healthy dose of literary homage. The results will inevitably depend on the individual reader, but for my part, Famous Men Who Never Lived hit hard and made me think long after I closed the back cover.

Protagonists Helen “Hel” Nash and partner Vikram Bhatnagar are Universally Displaced Persons (or UDPs). On the heels of nuclear war and terrorist attacks, Helen and Vikram–alongside ~156,000 other UDPs–are selected via a lottery system for a one-way trip to an alternate reality. Our reality, if you will. The technology, customs, and people in the reality they travel to are foreign to the UDPs. They’re enrolled in integration courses and allowed to live in this alternate New York, but they’re treated with rampant discrimination. Even the smartest and most successful UDPs (Helen was a surgeon in her reality) struggle to find footing in their new world. Helen becomes obsessed with The Pyronauts, a book Vikram brought through to this new reality. Ezra Sleight, the author of the genre-defining sci-fi novel, lived to old age in Hel’s reality but died at 10 years old in the new one. Hel wants to memorialize the people like Sleight who had a great impact on her old world but were never given the chance in the new one. She makes brief headway, only to encounter massive resistance as she further explores the idea. Meanwhile, she loses The Pyronauts–the only known copy in her new reality.

Hel’s escapades in pursuing the creation of a museum to the titular people who never lived are intriguing, and they’re framed by Chess’ elegant, simple writing. Viewing the reality I know through the eyes of a foreigner is an impressive and prosaic achievement on the author’s part. The characters only add to this brilliantly skewed perception of a reality that’s completely new to a small selection of its population. Chess creates vibrant, diverse characters who each provide a fascinating lens through which we can view and evaluate our own reality. Vikram is my personal favorite; his struggle to balance his memories of the old world with his desire to adapt to the new one is gorgeously portrayed in his interactions with others. He takes a menial job as a security guard and makes the most of his new lot in life while simultaneously doing whatever he can to help Hel open her museum.

The premise of Famous Men, boiled down to its barest elements, is a commentary on immigration. Members of our reality instinctively reject travelers from an alternate timeline. During my initial read, I found this quite literally unbelievable–wouldn’t we welcome reality-hoppers with open arms and eagerly gobble up information about their lives, technologies, and customs? I scoffed at the book during moments that explored this idea of being the “other” until I turned the final page and let it stew in my mind for a few days. Immigration is a global issue, and it only took one brief look outside of my bias and privilege forcefields to understand what Chess and her characters were saying. Just as so many of us (in the U.S. at least) instantly disregard immigrants from other countries, the population of Chess’ constructed reality wave off UDPs as unimportant or even harmful to their world.

And that’s part of the magic of this book. I closed Famous Men Who Never Lived with a scowl, unsure of its attempt to make meaningful commentary on a notably divisive issue. Post-read, the novel had time to subconsciously stir and simmer my brain stew until a delicious, revelatory morsel emerged and helped me grasp an issue I’d previously been willing to ignore.

Famous Men Who Never Lived reflects our political landscape and expertly explores the impact of our behaviors and biases on those around us. Hel reads as a perfectly respectable person whose only “faults” are being from an unfamiliar place and wanting to tell the story of her people. She’s a case study in how far people will go just to make their voice heard and how happily those in power will suppress those crucial minority voices. The book is both a warning and a call to action that I took to heart.

From a strictly narrative standpoint, if you’re looking for a fast-paced, action-packed bender of a plot, Famous Men Who Never Lived most certainly will NOT scratch that itch. It will, however, give you a new perspective on what it means to feel like an outcast when all you’ve done is exist in a place where people thought you should not. It will place you into the shoes of someone whose only crime is being thrust into a land that won’t support them. It will show you that the world would be a better place with just a little more empathy and compassion. And for that, it’s worth your time.

Rating: Famous Men Who Never Lived – 9.0/10
-Cole

A Halloween Special: But What IS Horror Anyway?

Happy Halloween to all you spooksters out there! I’ve been wanting to take some time out and talk inanely about what “horror” means to me for a while now, and everyone finally rolled their eyes and gestured for me to go ahead. Alex described the concept to me very succinctly a short while ago by saying that “horror is the fear of a loss of agency.” I thought that was an incredibly profound and direct way of looking at what causes the sense of horror and prompted me to get this piece hammered out. If you’ve ever wondered why it was that someone liked a type of horror you think sucks, or if you’re just curious about my thoughts on what makes things scary and why, buckle up. If this isn’t your thing…well it’s only Halloween once a year so buckle up anyway because we’re about to dive in.

51ut2bq3tjkl._sx332_bo1204203200_ 513c4jctmyl

Body HorrorThe fear of our own mortality.

Anyone who is afraid of the sight of blood or has felt squeamish at the thought of how their body truly works will be intimately familiar with this type of horror. Body horror, in essence, is the utilization of humanity’s natural disgust response to affect the reader or viewer in a physical way. When a person flinches as someone is stabbed by a murderer or feel sick to their stomach at the description of a parasitic infestation, they are reacting to a type of body horror. This is one of the most fundamental and easy to access types of fear reactions in people, as there is very little build up required. Describing the “gory details” can force people to react, even without a great deal of empathy for the characters, which is part of why this type of horror is so frequently associated with lower quality stories, or if not lower quality, then lower effort.

In her research paper on disgust, “Disgust As An Adaptive System For Disease Avoidance Behavior,” Valerie Curtis states that “Disgust is a fundamental part of human nature.” She points out that Charles Darwin was the first thinker to propose the universality of disgust, and builds upon their reasoning that the feeling of disgust originally arose in order to protect us from parasites and other disease vectors. This idea goes a long way to explain some of the most common themes in body horror. Witnessing bodily torture, parasites crawling under the skin, decaying bodies, these are all common tropes and frequently used within horror to elicit a physical response in the viewer or reader. It’s not hard to make the connection between these “scary” ideas and the fact that they act as disease vectors, that we are programmed to our core with a deep and unavoidable abhorrence for the reminder that our bodies are frail and easily disrupted systems that are keeping “us” alive.

haunting 81pegsyiaml

Paranormal The fear of our lack of understanding

I still remember the first time I was exposed to the idea of solipsism. For those of you unfamiliar with the concept, solipsism is the theory that an individual can only ever be completely sure of their own inner self. At a surface level that seems like a fairly obvious insight, but once the idea is picked at some troubling questions can emerge. How can anyone be sure that what they’re seeing is reality? What evidence do we have that our perception of the world is shared by anyone else? The feeling of uncertainty and dread that tends to follow from an examination of this idea is at the core of what drives paranormal horror.

Humans by our physical nature are restricted to an infinitesimally limited view and understanding of the universe we operate within. Limited to our (fairly poor) senses, we can see a fraction of the colors that exist, smell almost nothing, hear a tiny range of frequencies, and touch only what we imagine to be physical. On top of all that we have a mushy organ that tries to interpret all of this information and build a cohesive narrative out of it. The understanding of how limited and non-comprehensive our experience of reality is can lead to the obvious question of “what are we missing?” It is this question that lives at the heart of paranormal horror. It is the attempt to tap into that sort of fugue state of existential dread at the realization of how much reality we miss as we go through our lives and that if we’re missing so much, there must be something we aren’t even aware that we’re missing. Whether that takes the form of ghosts, demons, or simply a house that really doesn’t like being lived in doesn’t matter as much as the idea behind why these forces are scary. We are unable to experience their true nature and it is horrifying for us to be reminded of our limitations and frailties.

911954 7b31be5c62-63a9-4172-b6d2-79d69e339d177dimg400

Psychological The fear we create for ourselves

I bet you’re thinking that this is a silly way to categorize horror. “All horror is psychological,” you say, “it’s all in your head.” You’re right, but so is everything else and that’s not even what I was going to say, so maybe you should let me finish. The nerve of people these days.

Why is it that so many people, myself included, can much more comfortably read horror than experience it in other types of media? I have an active and vivid imagination, so I can assure you that it is not due to some lack of ability to see horrifying things in my mind’s eye. It has to do with the atmosphere of horror and how that atmosphere is used to affect the person consuming said horror. It is important to note that all horror relies on atmosphere and as such there is always some attention paid to ensuring that atmosphere has horrific elements.Creators within the audiovisual space have a more expansive toolkit, and have the ability to evoke a terror response in a number of different ways. By coordinating different techniques, including auditory cues and sharp visual jump cuts, creators can trigger the flight or fight response within their viewers in order to cultivate a more subconscious atmosphere for the horror to thrive within. It is these involuntary responses that makes horror movies and games, at least for me, much more physically affecting and difficult to enjoy. In this sense the jump scare and spooky music are acting as a laugh track, placed there to ensure that even someone not paying attention to anything knows “this is the scary part.”

In contrast, horror in literature is stripped of these tools that are always so near to hand in film. Psychological horror in the written word must make careful use of writing technique, prose, and word choice to slowly drip feed the atmosphere to the reader. If done right, the writer can build empathy for the character and their situation, having the horror burrow further into the reader’s mind. There’s no payoff in seeing the “monsters” in The Shadow Over Innsmouth if you hadn’t spent the previous pages of the story exploring the town through the main character’s eyes, whereas a scary prosthetic or animatronic monster can frighten people at any point in a film with the right music and editing. It is the careful push and pull of giving the reader just enough information to lure them in but not so much that the reveal is spoiled at the climax of the book that is so impressive when authors get it right.

41mceocptrl._sx311_bo1204203200_ image (2) (2)

Cosmic HorrorThe fear of our own insignificance

Imagine for a moment there was a world ending asteroid on a collision course with Earth. Nothing can stop it and we can’t get away, but it’s not supposed to hit for months. What do you think the overwhelming feeling would be? I doubt “screaming terror” would be the prevailing emotion. I imagine that most people would describe it with one word, “dread.” Dread at the inevitability of destruction due to something that cannot be reasoned with or understood as a motivated actor. Cosmic horror is the elevation of this event from an act of nature we don’t understand, to a god like consciousness we don’t understand. It is the exploration of the idea that the asteroid has motivations of its own, and chose to head this way, but not for any reason we could claim to understand.

Humans have spent all of our recorded history at the top of what we think of as the food chain here on Earth, but there was a far greater amount of time when modern man was just another species hiding in the dark from predators and struggling against extinction. The idea of a threat to your existence that threatens not out of personal enmity but instead its fundamental nature is one that has a significant amount of historical significance to humans, and it is easy to see that stories recalling this feeling can impact us so deeply to this day. The concept that a Cthulhu or the Worm Gods or Hastur could unintentionally destroy us all on their way to doing something else and not even notice is powerful, frightening, and reminds us of how insignificant we are in the grand scale of the universe. Cosmic horror beckons every time we look up at night and remember that each point of light is a star bigger than we can begin to comprehend.

In conclusion – So why do we do this to ourselves? Why do we seek out things that will haunt and unsettle us in the small hours of the night and come unbeckoned when we finally fall asleep? I can’t speak for everyone who reads horror but I personally view it as a type of desensitization. Similar to cognitive behavioral therapy for mental illness, horror as a genre allows individuals to seek out, explore, and come to terms with both the things they knew they feared and the ones that were bubbling under the surface. “Face your fears” is a common refrain and piece of life advice because it encourages you to stand up to something that frightens you and grow past it, or at least learn how to not let it control you. Horror allows a safe place to do this standing up at whatever pace works best for the reader. If you can’t do one thing that scares you every day, try to read one thing that scares you instead.

Let me know all of the problems you’ve had with this thought piece about what scares us in the comments and thanks for making it this far.

-Will

The Burning White – A Light(bringer) At The End Of The Tunnel

51rfff0pfml._sx321_bo1204203200_Ending a big series is always an experience that creates a lot of mixed feelings. On the one hand, it’s nice to finally know what happens after thousands of pages of build-up and investment. On the other hand, there is a strange comfort when there are books still unpublished – and when you realize that no more are coming, you can be left feeling a little empty. In those moments, I often find myself asking “were the hours I invested in reading this story worth it?” When I asked this question of The Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks, the answer is a conditional yes.

Last week saw the release of the fifth and final installment of The Lightbringer series: The Burning White. The series has been a tumultuous rollercoaster of emotions, both in terms of story and my reviews. If you were paying a weird amount of attention to our content and rankings you might have seen things like A thought piece by Will Klein talking about how book one, The Black Prism, taught him not to judge books by their first 4th. On the recommendations page, you might have seen the series land in tier one many years ago, tier three for a short period of time, or that it now has found its final resting place in the tier twos. It’s a divisive and evocative story that I have a lot of opinions on, and I’m lucky that I have a platform on which to voice them.

Although we have referenced the series in about 10 different lists and thought pieces, we haven’t actually reviewed one of the books properly until now. A part of this is because it is really hard to talk about the story without giving anything away. For those of you completely unfamiliar with the story of this five part epic, it goes a little something like this:

The Lightbringer Series follows five key POVs (Gavin, Kip, Liv, Teia, and Karris) in a fight to save their world from annihilation. Author Brent Weeks’ world is governed by light where individuals are occasionally blessed with the power to ‘draft’ one or more colors of the rainbow and turn the light into solid matter of the corresponding color. Each color has a unique well-developed identity, and drafting them causes changes to the drafter over time. Drafting is a powerful and dangerous magic that ends in the death of the drafter once they reach the limit of their magic. Once that unknown limit of a color is reached, they are consumed by that color and become a monstrous wight. The one exception to this law of nature is the prism, a full spectrum drafter who is given the responsibility of ensuring the colors are balanced in exchange for unlimited drafting. Color imbalances result in catastrophe, so the role of a prism is pivotal to the survival of the world. The prism is the head of Chromeria, a governmental body that exists as both a bureaucracy and university to govern and educate citizens from all over the world. To protect the prism, an elite core of bodyguards called ‘The Blackguard’ protect them at all times – for the premature death of a prism could mean the end of civilization. Our story follows POV’s that range from The Prism himself to members of The Blackguard, students of Chromeria, and members of the ruling council.

One of the nice things about reviewing series is it’s often easy to talk about books as a group because of how many similarities they share. With The Lightbringer, that is impossible because their biggest shared quality is how different they are. Will, in his aforementioned piece, talks about how the first book, The Black Prism, has a very slow start – but once it finds its momentum it becomes a carnival of delight. Book two, The Blinding Knife, flawlessly takes the baton and serves the reader a cornucopia of twists, political intrigue, action, cool worldbuilding, and excellent character building. Then we hit book three, The Broken Eye, and things change again. Multiple characters you were invested in get sidelined, others you only knew in passing are thrust into the limelight, and the direction and tone of the book take a very large turn. The pacing slows down, the twists become so frequent that things start to get confusing, and the book ends in a very strange place. Then we have book four, The Blood Mirror. Originally, Weeks wanted to write a quartet of books to tell this story. However, when he finished the series he found that he needed more space and time to really do it justice – and expanded it to five books. Accordingly, there was a large delay between when The Broken Eye, The Blood Mirror, and The Burning White (book five), came out. Book four was… confusing to me. I no longer felt like there was a driver behind the wheel, and the story seemed to careen off into a strange new space that I didn’t understand. While I still enjoyed the fourth installment, it was nowhere near the same level of passion that the earlier installments evoked and I was ready to write off the series. Then I read The Burning White.

Looking back at the saga, I think that future readers are going to feel confused as to some of my impressions of the series. The reason for this is because The Blood Mirror and The Burning White are very obviously a book that was split– poorly, in my opinion — in half. So many strange choices about book four make sense when you reach the end of the series and you see Weeks very much stick the landing. While all of the books in this series feel like wild rides where you don’t understand what is going on, The Blood Mirror is the only one that feels like it isn’t a self-contained story. This plus the fact that I had to wait for large periods of time to read The Burning White severely damaged my investment in the series. However, I think that new readers who can read all five books back to back likely won’t have the same problems I had. That being said, I do think that Weeks was a little self-indulgent (which is his right as an author) in what he included and padded the story with. I feel there was a good chunk of content that could have been cut and streamlined to make the books better overall. However, The Burning White does do a lot of things right. The majority of the characters have satisfying endings – Gavin, Kip, and Teia in particular. There are a set of final twists that feel so very good, and make you feel like you finally got the settings on a lens correctly and can see clearly for the first time. The final battle of the series is sufficiently epic with tons of pulse-pounding action and excitement. Finally, there is a lot of emotional pay off that made the faltering journey through these five books feel worth it.

At the end of the day though, The Burning White found the holes in my psyche left by the talons of the first books in the series and dug itself in. Despite going in with low expectations and a resigned sense of duty to finish a series that I had already invested so much time in, I was pretty blown out of the water. The Burning White is a brilliant conclusion to a strong series with some minor flaws. The Lightbringer is unpolished, one of a kind, a rollercoaster with no brakes, and worth your time. Weeks should be proud of what he has accomplished, and in the hollow wake of finishing this massive story, I find myself excited to see what he is going to do next.

Rating: The Burning White – 9.0/10
-Andrew

The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – A Subway Ride You’d Rather Stay On

haunting

Why did it have to be a novella? QTL readers familiar with my other reviews will know that I tend to harp on authors for padding their stories out to novel-length. It has historically been one of my largest pain points in reading horror, as I personally feel that the genre tends to be at its best when it remains lean, punchy, and shocking. Cue the gasps when I reveal that, at least for The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I wish it was a novel. In fact, I wish this was book one of a fifteen book series reminiscent of the old Spenser detective books. I devoured this story, and as much as I tend to appreciate and advocate for affecting stand-alones, this world cries out for more exploration than it’s received both here and in P. Djeli Clark’s short story “A Dead Djinn In Cairo.”

The Haunting of Tram Car 015, set in Cairo in the early 1910s, follows a pair of supernatural investigators looking into what they’re initially told is a haunted tram car. Through a series of trial and error mishaps, bargaining, intimidation, and a small bit of cross-dressing, the two investigators eventually work out the nuts and bolts of the case. The novella doesn’t tread any fresh ground for the detective genre through its story, and anyone looking for surprises here is going to be disappointed. As someone who grew up reading the Spenser books and loves a good mystery, it was very solid, if by the numbers, detective fare. 

Our main characters, Agents Hamed and Onsi, once again follow a format we’ve seen before in the genre. Agent Hamed is a cynical but effective investigator who’s been on the job for quite some time and is a little stuck in his ways. While anyone who’s read detective stories or mysteries before will have seen this dynamic play out, I thought that Clark managed to imbue the characters with just enough that was different that they still seemed fresh. Agent Onsi is fresh out of the academy and has an air of Carrot about him, for those familiar with the Discworld books. Enthusiastic, intelligent, and extremely devoted to each individual letter of the law, much of the comic relief comes from Onsi’s inability to stop talking or read the room. His reading out the specific statues violated by the possession of the tram to the spirit haunting it was hilarious to me, and Hamed’s inner monologue as it was happening was a great moment of levity.

While the characters and story may at least feel familiar to readers, what truly sets The Haunting of Tram Car 015 apart is its setting. The Cairo described within the text is a bustling and diverse megacity due to the re-release of magic into the world about 50 years prior by the Egyptians. This changed the course of history as we’re familiar with it and elevated Egypt to world power status immediately, freeing them of their colonial shackles and putting them at the very forefront of the world stage. During the events of the novella the shockwaves of this are still being felt throughout the world. The integration of Djinni and other magic beings is discussed at length, as well as domestic and foreign views of how the remainder of the world is handling the fact that Egypt is now (once again) a major player in world politics. I especially enjoyed the conflict Hamed experiences in his traditionalism in regard to his view of women and how to treat them in public in contrast to his progressivism when it comes to the spiritual denizens of Cairo. In addition to all of the larger worldwide political exploration, the story takes place at the same time as the country is about to vote on women’s suffrage. The added bustle of the city increases the stakes during several moments of the plot, and I felt that Clark did a good job exploring how the events of the prior 50 years have changed the culture in Egypt to the point that the women’s suffrage movement is both possible and extremely popular. I wasn’t expecting this going in, but I felt like it added a great deal to the sense that this story was taking place in a real world inhabited by real people, regardless of how magical and otherworldly it seems on its face.

With a title like The Haunting of Tram Car 015, I expected some elements of horror. Unfortunately, I was a little disappointed in this particular case. While the story is “spooky” in that it revolves around a haunting and there are things adjacent to ghosts in it, I never really felt scared by any of the descriptions or events. There was always a distinct sense of threat and consequence if things went wrong, and the final conclusion of the story was very much edge-of-your-seat stuff, but I was left wishing I had felt more scared by things, rather than unsettled. This certainly may not be the case for everyone, though depending on what it is that you’re scared of there are some moments that could give people the heebie-jeebies, but it just never really happened for me.

Even with the lower level of spooks than I personally prefer, The Haunting of Tram Car 015 left me wanting so much more. Normally I would say that to mean it didn’t reach the heights it could have and I was left disappointed on that account. In this instance, I wanted about 300 more pages of worldbuilding and exploring this version of Cairo. I adored the world Clark built and felt something akin to whimsy as he described the workings and machinations that keep such a unique city running. I will be overjoyed if we ever get to see more of Agents Hamed and Onsi, but I’m glad to have spent even a brief period following them on a romp through a city I’ll never forget.

Rating: The Haunting of Tram Car 015 – 8.5/10