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.