Reading: Spectres, Sleuths, and Shamuses

Time, once again, to peruse my Just Finished shelf. Please enjoy. Or don’t. Either way, read the books, won’tcha? You won’t be disappointed. Or you might. At least you’re reading, right?

Archivist Wasp. Nicole Kornher-Stace

I’ve read more than a few novels about people who commune with ghosts. However, I’m hard-pressed to come up with a more original take on the conceit than Nicole Kornher-Stace achieves with Archivist Wasp.

Wasp is the Archivist, a teen-aged girl charged by her dystopian theocractic rulers with trapping, interrogating, and destroying ghosts. After three years, Wasp’s time is almost up—the story opens on her newest fight for the position, an annual death-fest against girls marked by the goddess Catchkeep—so when a mysteriously substantial ghost offers a chance at escape, she leaps for it. The duo descend into the land of the dead, searching for the ghost’s partner and revealing the web of deceit that has kept the population under control for countless years.

Yeah, this is a strange one, almost unclassifiable at parts, and more power to it. Kornher-Stace’s novel is wonderfully dense in concept and execution, and as a feat of literary world-building it ranks with the best of China Miéville and Neil Gaiman. It’s also a penetrating examination of the subjectivity of memory and the inevitable toil absence and loss take on us all. Plus, Archivist Wasp is a crackling fantasy adventure, rich with strong characterizations, vivid action, and emotionally satisfying narrative.

A Man Lies Dreaming, Lavie Tidhar

Few authors have hit me as “must-reads” as quickly as Lavie Tidhar. His Bookman Histories trilogy is a gloriously unhinged steampunk epic, Osama is as fine a surreal novel as they come, and The Violent Century must rank among the finest superhero novels of this century. Now, A Man Lies Dreaming delivers another amazing, mind-warping read. Blending classic detective noir with historical fiction, Tidhar crafts an intricate mystery that is also a brilliant Holocaust novel.

The main story follows Wolf, a London-based detective in an alternate 1930s where the rise of the Third Reich was halted and Germany is now a communist state. After Wolf, a former dictator—”Wolf” being the meaning of the name “Adolf”—takes on a beautiful Jewish woman as a client, he finds himself at odds with police, old colleagues, the CIA, and his own despicable antisemitic beliefs. Meanwhile, East End prostitutes are being murdered, their bodies left with swastikas carved into their flesh.

It’s a fantastic conceit, brilliantly realized, yet it’s not the whole tale; this is in no way an attempt to repurpose Hitler as some sort of hero or trivialize the acts of the Third Reich. In short interruptions, it becomes clear that Wolf’s tale is a dreamed narrative of Shomer Aleichem, a pulp author who escapes the brutal reality of his imprisonment in Auschwitz through his imaginings of this alternate reality. His dream-story may batter Hitler about (and yikes does he have a hard time of it), yet it also notes that his rancid antisemitism would have found a foothold in the world, if not by him then by the actions of others. Shomer (and by extension Tidhar) may belittle the dictator, but it is acutely aware that he was (and is) only a piece of the problem.

A Man Lies Dreaming is another triumph for an author unafraid to confront issues that confound and overwhelm most writers. I’m calling it: Lavie Tidhar is one of the modern greats.

Something More than Night, Ian Tregillis

Hardboiled noir with a supernatural bent always gets me. Can’t explain it, don’t wanna. Falling Angel,  The Mona Lisa Sacrifice,  The Dead Harvest: can’t get enough.

Something More Than Night certainly fits all my needs. Ian Tregillis’ novel throws everything it can get its hands on into the mix: detectives, quantum physics, theological concerns, angels, demons, the afterlife…it’s all there, and better yet, all good.

As Something More Than Night begins, the Angel Gabriel has been slain, and low-rent angel Bayliss (who has a penchant for talking in Raymond Chandler-esque prose) must find a human replacement to take over the job. Unfortunately, he slips up and accidentally converts Molly, a strong-headed individual precisely wrong for the position. Soon, both are caught up in a theological mystery involving a missing device of power known as the Jericho Trumpet, sought after by a whole whack of surprisingly violent heavenly bodies.

That would have been enough for most authors, but Tregellis goes further with his world-building, rooting his heavens in a scientific mishmash of quantum and particle physics. He also layers the story over a dystopian background, humanity eking out its survival in a world where the ocean is dead, space is nothing but debris, and the end of everything seems more and more likely.
It’s a hell of a fine tale, brilliant in spots, and never less than utterly captivating. All the pseudo-science and theological theorizing means the novel may deserve a reread to fully parse all of the ideas, but Bayliss’ tale never bogs down even when concepts are whizzing a full metre above my head, i.e. I’m kinda dumb. I don’t know if there’s any possibility of a Bayliss sequel, but I’d be up for it in a heartbeat.