Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – Borderlands Meets Ready Player One

Suits

David Wong’s Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits takes off at an epic pace and never slows down. Really, this futuristic sci-fi fever dream treasure hunt reads like one long crescendo, with some tasteful dips and peaks and some dull moments. As near-future over-the-top sci-fi goes, the novel carves its own niche and tells an interesting story, even if it’s a bit shallow. Protagonist Zoey Ashe receives news of her estranged father’s death, then immediately dives into a world of booze, crime, and loads of money. While she knew of her father–and his insanely enormous bank account–she didn’t know him. Turns out he was essentially the Godfather of Tabula Ra$a (yeah, that’s how it’s spelled), a desert city that can best be categorized as Las Vegas amped up tenfold. He was unbelievably rich and left something in a vault that only Zoey can open. She’s whisked away into the juiced-up sin city by holographic text messages and muscle cars, tracked the entire time by the feed of an all-seeing crowdsourced social network.

Her adventure to open the vault flavors the novel with a veritable smorgasbord of sci-fi wonderment that’s slightly reminiscent of Ready Player One, but without the needless onslaught of 80s nostalgia. [Mild Spoiler] The vault actually turns out to be a MacGuffin, and the crux of the novel sees Zoey coming into her own as a cog in the gears of Tabula Ra$a. Zoey’s journey after the book’s first third launches her headfirst, and with little preparation, into a battle with artificially enhanced thugs and a supervillain. Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits wastes no time introducing countless action tropes with fresh twists. But Zoey and the surrounding plot are vastly overshadowed by the sheer wonder of Tabula Ra$a. The city’s starring role cannot be undersold. Wong weaves a setting of unparalleled vibrancy. Tabula Ra$a, built on the backs of criminal millionaires and fun-seeking hooligans, bursts with light, color, and life. It’s the type of world that begs to be explorable in a video game, and Wong knows precisely how to play that angle with fitting descriptions of the city’s inhabitants, buildings, and politics.

Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits struggles, though, when it comes to character. Zoey herself is a premier example. She cracks jokes and engages in witty banter, but that’s her whole schtick. Wong often uses his female protagonist as an excuse for lackluster innuendos, which mostly fall flat. It doesn’t help that Zoey is way out of her league relative to the trendy, cunning elite that keeps her company throughout. Her father’s former employees all ooze perfection in one way or another. They’re all dressed to the nines and oddly amazing at what they do. In fact, each is painted as so infallible that even the interesting backstory they’re given does little to flesh them out into more than one-dimensional secret agent archetypes. There are a few exceptions to this rule; Zoey’s bodyguard, Armando, is the best of them. He provides comedic relief and boasts a relatable and human backstory. Still, exceptions like Armando just aren’t plentiful enough to salvage the tepid characterization.

Like Tabula Ra$a as a setting, the book’s plot plays into the quirky nature of Wong’s oddball near-future. When robotically/surgically enhanced thugs start causing trouble and terrorizing the city during a hunt for Zoey, she and her cast of spy sleuth action heroes have to take the offensive. To be clear, the plot works and fits just fine within the world, but this book could have easily been about Zoey dealing with her Dad’s death in a completely foreign environment while adapting to a new life, and I would’ve liked it just as much. Essentially, the plot serves as a decent device and not a pillar on which the book could stand alone.

On a more genre-related level, Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits yearns to be appreciated as its own unique brand of sci-fi that encapsulates elements of modern times, super-feasible near-future gadgets, and insanely advanced technology. In this regard, it clicks, and Wong’s treatment of his world and the characters within makes for a serviceable start to what could be, with some polishes and tweaks, an amazing sci-fi saga. Of course, that’s if he decides to write it as a series. For now, the novel accomplishes a bevy of sci-fi tasks and falls short on others. With an interesting world and loads of action, it’s a worthwhile romp with its fair share of flaws.

Rating: Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits – 7.0/10
-Cole

This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – I Spent Longer Reading The Title Than I Did Reading The Book. No, Seriously, This Was An Unnecessarily Long Book Title

51hnqg0ylal-_sx331_bo1204203200_To you catchers of creeps, you hunters of haunts, you finders of frights, I bid you welcome to the Spooky Corner on the spookiest day of the year! Happy Halloween from those of us at The Quill to Live, and we hope you’re having a delightfully dreadful time. Now that the pleasantries are out of the way, let’s get to what you came for.

We’re back with the second installment in the John Dies at the End series: This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It (henceforth referred to as Spiders, since that title is half a dictionary long). For those of you who don’t remember or didn’t read my review of the first book in the series from a week or two ago (shame on you), you can find it here. As a brief summary, I absolutely loved its take on horror and the human understanding of the universe, but thought that the childish humor and despicable characters may, understandably, impede enjoyment for some.

Shockingly, Spiders continues with much of the same. David and John are still despicable and relatively worthless human beings other than the whole “saving the world” thing they did in book one. A year has passed, and the town of Undisclosed hasn’t changed much over that time. It’s still a shithole, weird stuff still happens, and the “junkie scooby gang” is still deeply involved in the aforementioned weird stuff. The book opens with David and John getting drunk on a water tower as a military style convoy passes under them and violently crashes. They take a macguffin from the crashed vehicle, bury it in their backyard, and go back to daily life (as you do). Well, they try to, but David is attacked by a terrifying spider-monster that he barely fends off before it escapes and takes over the body of a police officer who was trying to arrest him at the time. This mishap leads to a few others and suddenly the town is overrun by spider-zombies, go figure. The remainder of the book mostly follows the split-up John, David, and Amy as they try to find each other in the quarantined town and, as a secondary goal, try to save the world (again).

If the plot sounds rather neat and tidy in that fantastic synopsis, that’s because it is. I thought there were some forgivable but frustrating issues with pacing and narrative flow in JDatE, Spiders felt much more cohesive throughout and really felt like one self-contained story. The order of the chapters and fondness of the author for pausing the action to go back to another character’s perspective from a few hours before could have led to some serious issues, but I actually think that it was well done and added to both the suspense and humor of the book positively.

On the topic of “things that could have really ruined this book but turned out ok in the end”, I thought that the zombie apocalypse in the town of Undisclosed was handled very well and avoided a lot of the traps that zombie books tend to fall into. As something of a zombie fiction fanboy (Link to my recommendations here for those who are interested), there are a lot of ways to do zombies wrong and, while that wouldn’t have bothered me much as I just really love zombies, Spiders avoids a lot of the major ones. The zombies are scary, gross, unique, and fit within this universe’s flavor of horror and monsters extremely well. I’m rarely spooked by zombie books at this point, but there were a couple of moments that really got to me. When you get to the garage you’ll know what I mean.

A possible major sticking point for readers of the first book, and one that anyone reading the review of its sequel likely didn’t have an issue with (or found a way to move past it), was the fact that the main characters are…sort of the worst. John is a flaky, crazy, meth-smoking junkie, David is an overweight and horrifically depressed manager of a movie store, and Amy is basically their conscience and one ray of hope for the two of them to not be so fucking terrible all the time. The dynamic trio is split up for the majority of the book for reasons I refuse to get into as I don’t want to spoil them, and seeing them interact with the variety of new side characters was a treat. While I love their dynamic together, seeing other people react to just how bad they are at being heroes was great and led to some alternatively hilarious and horrifying moments.

I’d like to take a moment, quickly, to appreciate one of the side characters featured in this book: Detective Lance Falconer. I am being intentionally vague here, as to go into any more detail than I do in this paragraph could spoil what is possibly my favorite aspect of this book. I thought the way his character was handled was fantastic and really elevated a lot of elements in the book. From his first introduction to his final scene with David, he was a constant positive addition. He really stood above the rest of the characters introduced in Spiders, and I hope he makes a return in the future, preferably jumping over a truck of some kind in his bitchin’ Porsche.

On the topic of bitchin’ cars and jumping over things, Spiders maintains the adolescent level of humor that was found throughout the first novel. Toilet humor, excessive swearing, sex jokes, and what would be sight gags if this was a movie are plentiful and unapologetic. If you made it through book one just tolerating the humor, you won’t see much of an improvement here. A lot of it was still pretty hit or miss for me, but like in the first one when the humor did hit, it had me in stitches. There were a few moments where I drew looks on the subway because I was crying from laughing so hard.

In contrast to the humor, the horror was on point for the entire book. Not only did we get a much better understanding than in book one of why people do or don’t see the various creatures, but the creatures that were added and how the main characters interact with them in various situations were absolutely fantastic. There’s a scene with a teddy bear that I am still shuddering about weeks after finishing. The mix of body horror and oppressive atmosphere, the tension reminiscent of watching someone walk down into a dark basement in the theater, and the creeping sense of wrongness that pervades Undisclosed were all handled excellently. I am even more impressed with how scary this book is when you consider how much of it is dedicated to being funny at the same time. I will be having nightmares featuring certain scenes of this book for years to come. That may not sound like a glowing recommendation, but it really is.

John Dies at the End had been on my to-do list for years before I finally got to it. I read This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It in one sitting the day after I finished the first book. It ups the quality of the first book in every way and is a must-read for anyone who enjoys cosmic horror, zombies, or creepy parasites. The humor is sometimes a little off-color and tone deaf but that is easily forgiven when considering the quality of the horror and how much fun the ride is the entire time. The Spooky Corner of The Quill to Live enthusiastically recommends This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It.

Rating: This Book is Full of Spider: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – 9.5/10

-Will

John Dies at the End – No, He Doesn’t.

john-dies-at-the-endThe days are getting shorter, the temperature is fluctuating 30 degrees a day, and everything is slowly turning brown. This can only mean one thing: We’re most of the way through October and Halloween is fast approaching. Regular readers of this blog know that with Halloween comes…a SPOOKY CORNER POST.

Yes, that’s right. I’m back in all my cobwebby, dusty, half-seen-in-the-dark-of-a-new-moon glory. With me, I bring a review of a book that was released over a decade ago, John Dies at the End, by David Wong (pen name of Jason Pargin, executive editor of Cracked.com). Now, you may be asking yourself (or me), “Why review a book that’s been out for a decade, one popular enough at that time to have spawned a cult-favorite motion picture?” Well, kind readers, because I’ve made a note to read it, and subsequently forgotten to, more times than I can count. Also the third book in the series released this month, jogging my memory. Without further bullshit meant to inflate my word count and pay (that’s a joke, Andrew refuses to pay me), let’s find out what I think about what will henceforth be known as JDatE (note that I am not reviewing Jewish dating services though).

John Dies at the End is a weird book, for a variety of reasons. I can describe it as: scary, funny, clever, dumb, enthralling, confusing, and unique each in their turn. It is essentially the story of a couple young delinquents who take a drug and start seeing shit. This drug, named Soy Sauce by the characters, does something to them that peels back the layer of normalcy from the world and allows them to see things as they really are. Based on the fact that this is at least partially classified as a horror book, you can probably guess that “things as they really are” means “HOLY FUCK WHAT IS THAT”. After taking the sauce and having the veil lifted, they go on an adventure or two and save the world…sorta.

Now, I’m a huge fan of cosmic horror. The idea of the universe as a dark and terrifying place occupied by vast, unknowable entities is one that appeals to me. In this, JDatE is extremely up my alley. The specific explanations given for how the human mind reacts to seeing things it has no ability to fully comprehend was, if not completely unique, certainly spelled out more explicitly in this novel than in many I’ve read. The idea that paranormal sightings (ghosts, aliens, demons, etc.) are really just your brain trying to wrap itself around something that’s impossible for a human to have a frame of reference for is really cool. Now, explaining why people are seeing certain things isn’t enough, by itself, to make a good horror book. Luckily, Wong/Pargin does a great job in thinking up some actually horrific stuff. There’s a decent mix of atmospheric, shock, and body horror, and I feel like when you consider how childish a lot of the humor is, the fact that the horror wasn’t exclusively gross-out body horror is something to be applauded. I was as creeped out at various points in this book as I ever have been by Barron, Lovecraft, or Chambers, and that earns this book major points from me.

The humor was somewhat more hit or miss for me. Before I get into any criticism, it must be said that this book did have me laughing so hard I cried a couple times, so when it hits it really hits. However, a lot of the humor would find itself comfortable in a Reddit.com comments thread, and while that’s all fine and dandy, it’s really not something I’m looking for in a long-form novel. The shock humor and childishness of it can wear thin at points, even with the understanding that this is keeping in character with the novel’s two leads, David and John.

On that note, if you’re someone who needs likable protagonists, or just protagonists that aren’t lowlife shitheads you may want to look elsewhere. John and David are not successful or mature adults. They do not become successful or mature adults by the end of the book. They are very much a pair of college dropout fuckups just trying to get by day-to-day, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that by itself was enough for people to drop the book. Personally, I was alright with it, but it is something of a trope in cosmic horror/weird fiction for the protagonists to be…well…shitheads. The alcoholic and once-great detective, the journalist out of a job and needing a big story to afford his morphine addiction, the obsessive and immoral scientist: these are all standard themes in horror, and lovers of the genre will likely have grown a somewhat thick skin for bad behavior in leads. Readers coming for the humor, or simply trying out something new may not be as forgiving, and I would have a hard time holding that against them.

The one thing I’ve really struggled to form an opinion on was the pacing. It felt incredibly off in some aspects and incredibly on in others. The book really felt like three separate stories to me due to a few time jumps and narrative changes. It’s not bad to have the different “adventures” each feel relatively self-contained, but I think the transitions could have been handled a little better. They felt abrupt, and while I think that was intentional, they were still a little more jarring than I think they should have been.

When looked at as an entire package objectively, I think John Dies at the End is a solid book. It will be very hit or miss for people based on the style of the humor and some of the descriptions of various…things in the book, but I definitely recommend at least giving it a try. However, when looked at as an entire package personally, this book was an absolute blast that I read in one sitting. I absolutely loved it and cannot recommend it highly enough to people that share my love of cosmic horror and sardonic humor experienced through the perspective of characters that have no business being the heroes in any story, especially their own.

Rating: John Dies at the End – 7.0 (objective rating) 9.0 (personal rating)/10

-Will