Review: A Brief History of the Dead, by Kevin Brockmeier

A Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier

A Brief History of the Dead was one of the more frustrating reading experiences I’ve had. (No, not because it totally ripped off the title of a short story I wrote years and years ago.) It’s one of those novels where you are constantly, painfully reminded of how good it could have been had the author not made some initial grave misstep. Here, that misstep was including the even-numbered chapters.

Let me explain. It’s a novel with a very cool premise, which is why I picked it up in the first place. The odd-numbered chapters chronicle the lives of residents of the city of the dead. That’s where you go, the novel claims, after you die, and there you remain until every person who knew you has died. At that point, you disappear, and that part of the afterlife is a mystery to the folks who live (?) in the city of the dead.

As the novel starts out, the population of the city (and therefore the city itself, as it has elastic properties) is growing exponentially thanks to a world that has evidently gone down the tubes—lots of wars, and lots of biological warfare. That’s what turns out to be the kicker: a manmade disease nicknamed “the Blinks”, which kills very, very rapidly and to which no one seems to be immune. After only a few weeks, the city has shrunk to a very small number of people—all of the people who knew the one remaining survivor, a biologist-type named Laura something.

I’m just going to say it: Laura something is not very interesting. Turns out she’s alive because she got sent out to Antarctica to do some research for Coca-Cola. (Let me reveal a really annoying plot twist: Coca-Cola, in an incredibly lazy turn of events, is responsible for the distribution of the virus that kills everybody. Now, I hate that company as much as every other good liberal, but come on.) Since she’s all isolated and stuff, she doesn’t get the Blinks. We then have to spend the even-numbered chapters reading the tedious details of Laura’s life and eventual doomed journey across the continent to find other survivors, most of which have been lifted from other, better books about Antarctica. (This will bother you less, probably, if you have devoted less time to reading about that awesomely barren place than I have.) She’s not a very interesting character, though that’s not all her fault—it’s hard to put her story up against the story of the city, which is infinitely more moving, thoughtful, lovely. In Laura’s chapters, we read rehashed descriptions of isolation in a cold climate; in the other chapters, we get haunting, original, beautifully written accounts of what it’s like to exist on the other side, what it’s like to be bound to every person—right down to the street cleaner—Laura something has ever met.

So anyway: the odd-numbered chapters are, on the whole, stunningly beautiful and surprising. (You can read the particularly beautiful and surprising first chapter here.) But Laura is dull, and the Coca-Cola conspiracy is trite and irritating, and so in the end I recommend this book with a great deal of hesitation. Honestly, if you just go read the first chapter you’ll have got the best of it.

In short: I’d give it two stars out of five. If you really want to read it, get it from the library rather than buying it, and if you get tired of Laura just start skipping her chapters.

Read it if you like: Post-apocalyptic fiction, An Inconvenient Truth

Don’t take my word for it: Apex Blog, LitMob, Wendy Palmer

Review: Invincible, by Troy Denning

Star Wars: Legacy of the Force: Invincible, Troy Denning 

Those of you who are regular readers know how I feel about Troy Denning. (Those of you who aren’t: not positively.) So you can imagine how unsurprised I was when Invincible, the culmination of an overwhelmingly mediocre nine-book series that takes place after The New Jedi Order, was really really terrible.

But what bothered me most was not just that the book was terrible. It was that it violated the most basic principle of Star Wars: that hope is a powerful force in the universe. Now you can believe that or not—I do, I have to—but regardless, it’s a key motivator in the original films, and it has been throughout most of the novels. It is a basic tenet of my faith—not only my religious faith, but the faith that we all have to have in other human beings if we want to remain sane in an increasingly insane world—that all human beings are innately good; that, once fallen, all of us are capable of being redeemed. And again, you can take that or leave it; you can think that redemption is faith in Jesus Christ or in the spaghetti monster or in love or hope; but you can’t deny that it is also a basic guiding principle of the Star Wars movies. What do they teach us if not that?

And so that’s my gripe with Invincible. Not that the plotting was lazy—it was—or that the characterizations were shallow—they were. But that, in the end, it failed to do the one thing these novels have to do. We whine and moan about Star Wars and its wayward politics, the dubiousness of allowing a class like the Jedi to exist and to help govern, very creepily and undemocratically, by birthright. That’s all true, and clearly these movies aren’t meant to be taken as a model for how to run a government. What they are is yet another incarnation of a very familiar story, and an important one.

So when Invincible shows up and tells us that, no, not everyone can be saved, and that indeed, the guy who can’t be saved is a character we’ve grown up with and loved for years—well, that’s frustrating. Even in the New Jedi Order, which everyone complained was too dark (everyone except me, anyway), that basic belief in the possibility—the necessity—of redemption remained. Horrible villains, even, who blew up dozens of planets and killed trillions of beings (including Chewbacca!!!!) got the chance Jacen didn’t. And as much as I don’t really care all that much about his character, I care a lot about what it means that they’ve killed him.

For one thing, it plunges these books irrevocably into dark territory. That started with the aforementioned death of Chewie (and later of Anakin, and then Mara), but those deaths—honorable ones all—were the kinds of deaths you always get in stories that have any drama at all. So we accept those as a consequence of storytelling. But having Jaina kill her own brother after deciding—along with Luke, Han, Leia, etc.—that he can’t possibly be saved? That doesn’t work. It’s a violation of everything this series means to this lame group of us who keeps reading these terrible books.

In short: Fortunately Star Wars novels are such that if you didn’t already read them you’re not going to start now (and unfortunately they also seem to be novels you can’t stop reading if you’ve been reading them since age seven). So, I mean, don’t start now.

Read it if you like: All the other horrible Star Wars novels.

Don’t take my word for it: No Krakana (thorough – plus he agrees with me), Novel IdeaDave Brendon